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New Juvenile Mental Health Court in Texas Helps Youth Recover As They Are Held Accountable

Over two decades ago, as a favor to a friend, I walked into the very juvenile courtroom that I now have the privilege of presiding over on a daily basis. A racquetball buddy of mine found himself in need of a defense attorney for his son. When I walked into the juvenile courtroom to familiarize myself with the process prior to taking the youngster’s case, I knew right then and there that I had found my home away from home.

From day one, those alleged “juvenile delinquents” moved me in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. The young people in juvenile court are resilient, talented, unique unto themselves and capable of stunning greatness. They should not be defined nor stigmatized by the acts that brought them into the juvenile justice system.

That is not to say that they should not be held accountable for their choices. I believe young people will accept and respond to fair consequences and will react in kind if we set our expectations of them at the high watermark.

As much as I enjoy the daily docket, my heart soars in fulfilling a new role, presiding judge of the Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. SOAR Court was the brainchild of Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department. The theory behind this specialty court is that through intense services, court involvement, recommendations of a treatment team and community involvement, we can divert medium- to high-risk children with mental illnesses away from placement and instead keep them in the communities with their families.

In doing so, we can offer services and interventions not only to the child, but to everyone involved in the child’s life. Part of our mission is to build relationships between the court-impacted families and treatment providers and community resources so that when probation ends, the family is still functional and connected to local resources and assistance in their communities.

The children in SOAR have a diagnosed mental illness. Not to in any way diminish the impact of certain mental illnesses, but unlike many mental health courts, we focus on the more serious mental illnesses such as mood disorders rather than something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SOAR Court is not a substitute for children who are “unfit to proceed” or who lack “responsibility for their conduct” (Texas statutory terms).

No child should be expected to plead true to an offense if she does not have the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings and assist in her defense or appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or to “conform [her] conduct to the requirements of law” (Texas statutory definitions found in Chapter 55 of the Texas Family Code). The children in SOAR Court must be competent to enter pleas of “true” and not be entitled to the juvenile version of the “insanity defense.”

Children may be referred to SOAR by the prosecution, probation officers, community members such as police agencies and teachers, parents or the child’s attorney. The screening process is intense and involves a behavioral health assessment or psychological evaluation, application, interview and consent of the SOAR treatment team.

Once a child and family are admitted into SOAR, they will begin a journey involving individual and group therapy, family therapy, parenting classes, assessment and reassessment, participation in programs to develop social and self-advocacy skills, educational assistance and the responsibility of appearing in open court to articulate challenges and successes. In open court, each child and parent/guardian stands in front of a whole courtroom full of supporters and other SOAR participants to explain what events or conditions have been hardships since we last met and what experiences have been positive.

Incentives and sanctions are handed out in this open court setting. Such incentives and sanctions have been discussed and agreed upon in advance during a treatment team meeting. The treatment team consists of Ms. Prillwitz, a case manager, a probation officer, a state’s attorney, a defense attorney and myself. Examples of incentives include lessening of restrictions, praise by the team and the court, expansion of privileges and receipt of certificates of accomplishment. Extra community service, essay writing, restricted curfews and, as a last resort and sparingly used, detention are examples of sanctions.

SOAR consists of four phases. The first is orientation, assessment, rapport building and treatment planning. The treatment plans devised by our probation officer and caseworker are something to behold: very much individualized, intense and subject to review as the child and family progress. Stabilization comprises phase two of SOAR, followed by phase three, a transition phase wherein court involvement, probation and caseworker contact, and the intensity of services and counseling is reduced. The last phase is our aftercare and maintenance phase.

Our SOAR Court started on Nov. 1, 2016. Thus far no child has been removed from the court, and we have had one successful graduate. To call her a success is to diminish what she actually accomplished. Our first graduate progressed from being nonvocal in court to becoming a self-advocating, self-correcting, selfless member of her community — helping people in her neighborhood and church, and even block walking for a city council candidate. We see more such accomplishments in her future and in the futures of other SOAR participants.

So you might be asking what SOAR means. It means whatever it means to you and, more importantly, whatever it means to the young people in our court. The treatment team views this as a joint endeavor between us and the families. We do not propose to know all the answers, but we want to work with the families so that we can exercise trauma-informed care while focusing on strengths.

The concept behind Ms. Prillwitz’s vision was assuredly sound. Her implementation of this program was nothing short of amazing. The path to approval of and funding for a specialty court such as this is certainly not easy and involved consent from the prosecuting attorney’s office and approval of the commissioner’s court and governor’s office. However, it is all worth the effort. Now it is up to our treatment team to do all we can to help the children and families in our court SOAR!

Kimberly McCary is the judge of Denton County Court at Law Number One, Sitting as a Juvenile Court, and the judge of the Denton County Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. Before that she  was in private practice, specializing in juvenile defense work and serving as a municipal court judge.

Queer Youth Must Get Sexual Health Care While Incarcerated

As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.

It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?

October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.

Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.

Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.

To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

From Detention to Graduation: Examining Role of Education in U.S. Juvenile Justice System

At 7 a.m., teenagers are scurrying to dress and head to class. There are no parents or older siblings nearby to push them out of bed and out the door. And the commute isn’t long — just a short walk from prison bed to classroom.

But these young men at the MacLaren Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, are going someplace — and that’s a start, state educators and justice officials say.

The students meander from four different buildings, depending on their status — some as young as 15 and others who were sentenced as adults but placed in juvenile facilities — down long corridors to a central school.

“MacLaren is a regular school, and if you were to walk in you’d think you’re in a high school hallway,” said Deborah Martin, senior policy advisor for community services at the Oregon Youth Authority.

The students get the usual array of math, English and science. But MacLaren and most of Oregon’s other youth detention facilities also offer the chance to learn a vocation. An advanced auto mechanics class ties to a partnership with a local community college. Classes teach latticework and woodworking. Some students learn wildlife preservation and take advanced classes in fighting wildfires common to the Pacific Northwest.

The most advanced students, usually in their late teens or early 20s who have spent years in the facility and are ready to transition into the public sector, are allowed to work with local firefighters out in the fields.

“As a state, we’ve made a conscious decision that we can’t just give them a high school education, but give them a vocation and a chance to succeed in the work world,” Martin said. “For most of these kids, something wasn’t quite right about their life — that’s why they came to us. We want to help them get back on track.”

Oregon is considered at the forefront of efforts to improve the transition from juvenile detention back to public schools or into the workforce, according to education and juvenile justice experts.

In addition to schoolwork, the state has set up a system in which each teenager entering the juvenile justice system is assigned a parole officer who will stick with them until they exit the system.

The officers serve as case managers, arranging counseling, mental and substance abuse treatment if needed and, working with the teens, teachers and their families, devise an education and support plan as soon as they enter the system.

Transition officers

Additionally, Oregon provides some juveniles with transitional parole officers whose job is helping the teens and young adults in their first reentry months. What began as a pilot program four years ago with a single officer has developed into a statewide assistance program that has put about 100 teens into the workforce and helped many more return to the classroom.

Jim Kramer, chief of parole and probation for the Oregon Youth Authority, said transition officers stay in specific regions so they know about job opportunities and can build contacts in local school systems. They mostly support youth 17 and older.

All students leaving detention facilities in the state must be admitted into local schools. But “let’s face it, in some of these schools our students are going back to places in class with some of their victims, so there is some pushback,” Kramer said. “Our transition POs work to soften that landing and work with the school and student to come up with a transition plan.”

National trend to reduce recidivism

Oregon’s attempt to ease the transition from lockdown to society is part of a larger national trend that experts say is tied to a steep drop in juvenile crime and recidivism.

In the past two decades, the population of young people held in juvenile facilities or other forms of detention has been cut in half nationwide, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing solely on youth and their families.

The figures are encouraging, juvenile justice experts say, and show that more states are using data and lessons learned from comprehensive studies (such as one from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice in 2016) as blueprints for diversion and treatment programs that keep teens in school and ultimately make them far less likely to reoffend.

But the success of diversion programs has created a new reality for educators and justice professionals: Those who are locked up now are sometimes more hardened, more difficult to reach and present a challenge to educate and treat before and after they reenter society.

“What the data shows is that as incarceration rates have gone down, the population still incarcerated are higher risk and higher need, and recidivism rates still tend to be pretty high because it’s a challenging group to work with,” said Josh Weber, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.

“It requires a more nuanced reading of data and a more sophisticated understanding of risk placement and how to tailor education programs to the individual,” Weber said. “The juvenile field has done a good job, much better than the adult system, of keeping kids from coming back into the system. But I think we’re still struggling with developing enough programs for mental health and substance abuse.”

Recidivism and dropping out of school  

Educating teens held in facilities is crucial to helping them return to the classroom when they are released, experts said. But that’s not always easy, in large part because of circumstances students can’t control. Some teens are in locked facilities for only a few days or weeks, making it difficult for teachers to learn the best ways to help them learn. Nearly all students can be pulled from classes for court appearances or other reasons related to their legal issues.

“It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

In all, two-thirds of teens released from juvenile facilities never return to school and “find themselves far behind their peers,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on disparities in the justice system — adult and juvenile.

“A huge problem, and I’m not sure it’s talked about enough, is the lack of transfer of academic credits when students go from a facility back into a local school system,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “When they are going to school in a facility, they think they are getting credit, and they should be. But when they go back to their old school — or sometimes it’s even worse because they are forced to a new school away from where they live — they come to realize the school districts won’t accept those credits.”

That leads to frustration for the students and increases dropout rates, Burdick said.

National guidelines and action plans

Several states and local jurisdictions have implemented new rules to increase the chances that students graduate when leaving detention facilities. For example, New York — pushed into action by a lawsuit and consent decree — has created “credit equivalency charts” that provide uniform standards for integrating students back into the classroom. That includes efforts to make sure students are enrolled in schools in the same district in which they and their family live, increasing the odds they stay in school.

Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that speeds up the time between students leaving detention and being enrolled in a local school system.

The federal government has also created guidelines in recent years, aimed at smoothing the transition from detention to graduation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for disciplining students, part of an effort to keep teens in school and out of the justice system.

The guidelines stressed the need for strong partnerships among mental health agencies, counseling, law enforcement and school systems — designed to help divert students who might be sent to the juvenile justice system into counseling or specialized school programs. But the guidelines also focus on helping schools and students adapt as they leave lockdown facilities and return to public schools.

In  2016, the Department of Education released a “reentry toolkit” that provided tips and resources for local jurisdictions to provide services for students returning to the classroom.

Another program designed to help both adults and juveniles reenter society, the 2015 federal Second Chance Act, overcame efforts by the Trump administration to slash its budget by 30 percent as of press time. On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide full funding for the project at $68 million with support from both parties, according to committee member Scott Taylor, a Republican representing Virginia. The vote is seen as a key step in the budgeting process.

There is still much work ahead, said Weber of the Council of State Governments. States must do a better job gathering and analyzing case data that will help them craft more effective education programs to help teens graduate high school when they leave detention, he said.

“The good news is that the field is more aware of the need for having a more robust reentry program, and the planning starts much earlier,” Weber said. “It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

Despite the difficulties, Weber and others said there are several concrete steps jurisdictions can take to improve the chances teens graduate after incarceration. First and foremost is having mental health and substance abuse treatment programs inside the facilities and in the school systems.

“We’re struck by how few states have a dedicated mental health or substance abuse system,” he said. “The default in many instances is to handle those problems as criminal justice issues, and that’s not where they belong.”

Last year several groups focusing on juvenile justice and education issues combined to create a detailed, 10-point blueprint to aid reentry. The study and guidelines, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association Center of Children and the Law, the Juvenile Law Center and others, provides concrete examples and recommendations for states and local jurisdictions to follow.

Still, the success of any program depends on states dedicating money and time to ensure students have the best chance of graduating once they leave detention facilities, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center.

“There are software programs available, lots of innovative ways to engage students and tailor programs to individual needs,” Levick said. “But there has to be the will to do that.

“What’s always frustrated me is that these kids in locked facilities should have the same exact opportunities as kids on the outside. Yet we don’t hold facilities accountable for delivering the same quality of education. We have to really change that mindset if we want to see better outcomes.”

Trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

The 2014 U.S. Department of Education’s “Guiding Principles A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” articulates the federal government’s acknowledgement of inequity when it comes to school discipline:

“Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once ... and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.”

While the guidelines are nonregulatory, and “the extent to which states and school districts implement the suggestions in this resource guide is a matter for state and local school officials to decide,” it does provide 13 specific action steps designed to reduce suspensions and other out-of-school referrals.

For example:

  • “Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.” This action item names groups of youth who are often disenfranchised — from those with disabilities to LBGTQ youth and young people of color. Specific goals may include reducing numbers of suspensions and expulsions and law enforcement referrals, and “identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.”
  • “Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.”

“Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”  

Role of Law Enforcement in Our Schools Can Be Supportive, Benign

Marie WilliamsAs fall rolls around, parents and young people are preparing for a new school year. So too are teachers, school administrators and, in many places, school-based police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In its 2015 report on public school safety and discipline, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police personnel working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. With such a significant presence of law enforcement within our educational institutions, the time is ripe to re-examine and reimagine their role.

In 2013-14, 13 percent of all public schools reported at least one serious violent incident, and 2 percent reported at least one physical attack or fight with a weapon. Fifty-eight percent reported physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and 56 percent reported threats of physical violence (9 percent of which included a weapon and 47 percent that did not). Overall, the rate of serious violent incidents per 1,000 students was 0.5.

Regardless of how one might answer the question of whether the presence of police officers in schools is, or is not, a deterrent to serious violence, it is clear that since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, we, as a society, have been unwilling to accept the risk of violence. But increasingly, school-based police officers and SROs are being charged, not only with addressing violence, but also with removing from schools those children who are deemed to be disruptive to the educational environment. Across the nation, children are subject to removal, and even arrest, not only for things they do but oftentimes for things they do not do, including subjective infractions such as “defiance” and “noncompliance.”

We all remember the 2015 video recording from a South Carolina school where a girl was put in a headlock and thrown to the ground by a male police officer who had been called because she refused a teacher’s order to put away a cellphone. Not only was the excessive force shocking, but later, when the totality of the girl’s circumstances came to light, the system failure was even starker. At the time of her arrest, she was undergoing several familial challenges and was in foster care. Though it is impossible in hindsight to say whether those challenges were responsible for her refusal to cooperate that day, what is clear is that in an ideal world, an inquiry into her personal circumstances would have at least been made.

Among the children excluded from schools each year, an estimated 50 to 75 percent have behavioral or mental health needs and some estimates say as many as 70 percent have cognitive or learning challenges that may make school settings unreceptive, or even hostile, places for them.  

Additionally, there are children whose home and family circumstances make it difficult to attend school on a regular basis, focus and perform up to standards when they do attend, or respond appropriately to teachers and other authority figures. Other children may be victims of abuse or other trauma, making them more likely to be triggered by the rules, strictures or approaches that are typical of the school environment.

At the very least, these data suggest that we may be overusing and misusing the most extreme tool at our disposal in an effort to preserve the peace in our learning spaces. In Philadelphia, following many years of experience in the police department, and after rising to the level of deputy police commissioner, Kevin Bethel began to suspect as much.

As deputy commissioner, Bethel and his officers found that too often, children arrested in schools were no real threat to the public and were certainly not “delinquent.” Instead, they were more likely to be “defiant,” “insolent,” “belligerent” and in some cases “disruptive”— adjectives that, in the most benign interpretation, could be considered accurate descriptors of normal adolescent behavior, but could also be seen as indicators of a need for supportive social services.

With the cooperation of law enforcement, the juvenile courts and, perhaps most notably, the Department of Human Services, in 2012, former Deputy Commissioner Bethel began to reimagine the role of law enforcement in the School District of Philadelphia.

After developing memoranda of agreement and a process with his partners, Bethel started small — rather than arresting students for minor, nonviolent offenses, school-based police officers and SROs would divert these children and give them and their families the option to receive case management and support services.

In the first academic year (2014-15) of the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, arrests declined 54 percent and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the schools. And just as important, through the program’s intervention, hundreds of children and their families gained access to services they might not otherwise have received.

The Philadelphia experience reinforces what we already know from the data — that children funneled into the juvenile justice system are often not “bad” but rather in need of services, and that, all too often, schools become a pipeline to prison rather than a pathway to success. By simply reimagining the role of law enforcement in our schools, and by refocusing their presence toward helping students and their families, we might just restore our youth, our schools and our communities along the way.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

I Was a Kid in Solitary Confinement

My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.

Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.

On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.

I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”

As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?

It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.

After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.

I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.

Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.

I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?

Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.

Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.

It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.

Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.

Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.

This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.

This column has been updated.

Juvenile Justice Reformers Driven by Memories of Mistakes in Their Less-informed Past

Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.
Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.

BOSTON — The revelation struck Roy L. Juncker Jr. more than a decade ago, but the memory remains as stark as it is vivid.

Juncker was standing outside the detention facility in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, about seven months into his tenure as director of juvenile services there. He was having a chat with Nat Williams, the facility’s supervisor.

Williams interrupted the talk to say hello to a middle-aged black woman and her daughter heading toward the entrance. Williams knew the women by name, Juncker said. Williams told his boss that one woman was the grandmother, the other the mother, and they were going to visit their daughter and granddaughter, both of whom were in detention.

“I looked at him and I said: So you’re telling me that we have had three generations of this family cycle through our detention center, and he said yes,” Juncker recalled. “I said we are doing something wrong here. Why is that that we have three generations of a family coming through our detention center and we have not broken that cycle?”

Juncker resolved then, outside the detention center, to spearhead an effort to reform how he did business for the youth coming into his system.

“That was kind of my ah-ha moment,” he said. “I thought, my God, we have to do something different. I mean this is insanity; we are doing the same thing over and over again looking for a change in the families, so at that point I realized we had to do something different.”

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubJuncker was not alone in being haunted by his professional past, and dogged by old decisions. Many of the professionals who gathered for the symposium on probation system reform organized by the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice in Boston in April talked about the lingering guilt they still wrestle with today.

Many of the men and women on the frontlines of the juvenile justice systems, especially those in leadership positions, have made great strides in reforming their jurisdictions, pointing to lower recidivism, staggering drops in the number of youth in secure facilities and lower caseloads.

But despite such successes, there was a theme that was palpable over the week of the symposium, both privately in hotel hallways and publicly from the podium: a desire to make up for past mistakes. The more they implemented sound reforms that led to better outcomes for the children in their care, the more they thought about the old way of doing things and the damage they may have caused.

“I’d like to tell everybody here that I was some kind of great visionary that saw the future of juvenile justice, that I designed my own program and moved forward, but that would be too far from the truth to sell that to you,” said Bob Bermingham, the director of court services in Fairfax County (Virginia) Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. “I did all the wrong things for the right reasons for about 15 or 16 years of my career. I think about the possible harm that I did to kids and families over the course of my career. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t use that to motivate me.”

new york logo 01Fairfax is a safe, affluent community with a low crime rate, he said. But after he took over as director of the county agency he found the detention centers were filled to maximum capacity, his probation officers’ caseloads were stunningly high, and the system was rife with disproportionate minority representation.

“It didn’t make sense,” he said. “It motivated me to go out and look at what was going on around the country.”

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.
Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton CountyJuvenile Court in Atlanta, was also driven to transform his juvenile justice system by the mistakes he made as a young probation officer.

“I was a little wayward and misguided as a probation officer,” he said. “Knowing my times as a probation officer, and how many things I did horribly, or how many children that I irresponsibly, or sometimes just ignorantly, subjected to detention because I had no other tools,” he added.  “The recurring theme consistently has been the lack of knowledge, of understanding what’s going on, the depth of what’s going on in a child’s life.”

When Keith Snyder started his career as a probation officer he remembers how many of the youth in his caseload were afflicted with mental health problems. Now, as executive director of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, he has worked to change that.

“The quality and quantity of mental health services just wasn’t good and that was still stuck in my craw,” he said.

A decade ago, when the opportunity to work on reforming the system in Pennsylvania presented itself, he said, he volunteered to step up and spearhead the reform.

Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Gina Vincent said she remembers researching as a graduate student outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system and making troubling discoveries about recidivism rates and the number of youth in detention facilities. She is an associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts, and the president of National Youth Screening and Assessment Partners,

“And that was in tree-hugging Canada,” she said. “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

There is an 18-inch by 24-inch framed autographed drawing of Spider-Man that reminds John Tuell about what he describes as the moral underpinning of the work he and other probation professionals do. It was drawn by Eduardo, a youth he worked with when he was an administrator at a residential treatment facility for chronic delinquent offenders in Fairfax, Virginia.

John Tuell is the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Tuell, the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, lived in the area where he worked, so he would occasionally run into young people at a ballgame or at their jobs. He saw Eduardo at a favorite restaurant. He was a youth with a childhood marred by poverty and abuse. Now he was working at a restaurant and going to college to become a cartoonist.

“His brief note accompanying that autograph remains a priceless reminder for me of why we must give our all to these youth; more, why we must succeed, he said.

Not all the stories ended so well. Tuell worked with Christy, a bright young woman with a broken childhood, when she was 14 to 18. She looked to him as a father figure, he said. So it was a blow when Christy’s sister told him Christy had killed herself shortly after her 26th birthday.

“Her loss and my realizations of the many gaps and failures in my approach coupled with the way our systems responded to Christy, drive me every day to prevent another of these stories,” he said.

Juncker has more than a past as a probation officer driving him. Before he joined probation, he was a police officer. He worked as a juvenile detective for more than four years.

“As a police officer we looked for probable cause, we made arrests, we put kids into the system because that’s what we were trained to do,” he said. “Once I made the arrest and the child went to court and was adjudicated I didn’t care what happened to that child.”

Now as a leader transforming his agency Juncker said he feels he can atone for that jaded approach to children.

“I felt like all the damage I had done before arresting these kids and putting them in the system, that now I had an opportunity to correct that and make positive changes.”

This story has been updated.

Report Looks At Best Practices for Addressing Trauma in Diversion

Teenager boy worried sitting on the floor

When officials in four states were asked several years ago what tools they would need to divert youth from the juvenile justice system, a better understanding of trauma was at the top of all their lists.

They wanted to help youth with behavioral conditions when they are evaluated for probation but said they couldn’t do so most effectively without understanding how traumatic experiences had affected the adolescents.

A new report sets out a  framework for trauma-informed diversion that grew from those states’ experiences and additional research into best practices. It’s intended as guidance for other juvenile justice officials considering reforms to address trauma.

Karli Keator, division director at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice
Karli Keator, division director at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice

“If four independent states are identifying this as their biggest challenge, they’re not the only ones,” said Karli Keator, division director at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. The center and the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. worked with the four states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts and Tennessee — as part of the 2014-15 Policy Academy-Action Network Initiative and released the report.

hub_arrow_2-01Research shows many youth who have contact with the juvenile justice system are dealing with mental health or substance use disorders, and most also have experienced at least one traumatic event. Because trauma can interact with mental health or substance use disorders in ways that intensify those issues, a trauma-informed system plays an important role in helping youth, according to the report.

“By more effectively responding to traumatic stress, probation officers and others in the justice system can expect youth to experience increased levels of success with diversion services and more fully comply with dispositional requirements. Better life outcomes should also be realized,” the report says.

It identifies nine key elements needed to develop a trauma-informed diversion program for youth with behavioral conditions. The elements include leadership, cross-sector collaboration, policy and procedures, funding strategies and workforce development.

The elements are rooted in a report about trauma by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration but tailored to the needs of juvenile justice systems.

The report details each element and provides case studies from the four states. Under leadership, for example, the report shows the importance of identifying champions and linking leaders across systems, such as law enforcement, education and public health. Under policy and procedures, the report includes information on internal policies, memoranda of understanding between agencies and legislation.

The case studies tell of the role of a probation officer in Georgia who championed reform, engaging youth in Tennessee, and family involvement in Massachusetts.

Keator said much work remains to be done across the country to build trauma-informed diversion policies. States also will need to think about how to best identify kids in need, make appropriate referrals to services that are designed to address trauma and provide follow-up support.

“It’s not a one-and-done approach. We need a continuum,” she said.

In Georgia, state officials and their community partners built on earlier efforts to build a trauma-informed system. They were able to pinpoint when and how to screen youth in ways that are so far showing success, said Christine Doyle, director of the Office of Behavioral Health at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

“The information we have anecdotally is that it’s going well. The kids are responding to the screenings. They’re answering the questions, the referrals are being made and the kids are getting services,” she said.

Doyle said that while every state will have its own needs and solutions, collaboration is critical no matter the situation.

“Building a strong team is an essential piece to doing this work. No one organization or agency can do it alone,” she said.

OP-ED: One Case Makes the Case for Community Based Service

Judge TimberlakeCHICAGO — The national debate continues over the issues of guns and violence, but attention to the subject of mental health services and funding must not be lost.

We cannot miss the opportunity to recognize what good policy means to real people -- the police, probation and detention officers, social workers and therapists. Most importantly, we should seize this opportunity to explain how juvenile policy affects a real kid in a real family.

Dave McClure remembers getting the phone call at 12:30 a.m. He was a CCBYS worker on call, and an officer from the local police department was seeking his help. CCBYS is the awkward shorthand for Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services, an Illinois Department of Human Services program. It provides crisis intervention services in every Illinois county — all 102 of them.

The officer had brought two boys to the station after finding them sleeping in a laundromat. One boy’s mother had come to collect her son. The father of the other 15-year-old had refused to come — in fact, the father said his son was worthless and should be placed in the detention center. The cop could have called for a detention gatekeeper, but he thought the youth’s disrespectful and combative attitude was not enough to warrant a night in the lock-up.

Dave showed up and began a long effort to resolve the situation. The father came to the station after Dave’s encouragement, and, in the presence of the crisis worker and the policeman, father and son began a verbal battle that was obviously well practiced. It was eventually agreed that the boy would spend the night with an uncle and both would meet Dave the next day. That was the beginning of an eight-month case for CCBYS.

Neither father nor son was willing for the mom to be part of the discussions, but it became obvious that this was a family of secrets. Dave created a linkage to a mental health counselor. Mom never appeared, but secrets came out. She was an alcoholic, regularly beaten by her husband, an otherwise respectable local businessman. The son knew of the violence and developed great hatred for his father but kept the fights secret. Why — because his mother swore him to secrecy about her constant drinking and enforced that pact by keeping the son’s secret — that she had walked in on him as a 14-year-old having sex with his 12-year-old male cousin.

Domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual offending and family dysfunction – sound familiar? This is not a made-for-TV movie where everyone is saved, but the mental health counselor helped the son work through his terrible conflicts. He graduated high school and did not go deep into the juvenile justice system. Good policy made good practice — as it has across Illinois.

CCBYS provides a network of crisis workers who are on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Once involved, crisis workers help the young person secure emergency housing, with counseling, case management and links to substance abuse or mental health treatment. Law enforcement, schools and parents depend on crisis intervention services to divert young people from costly and potentially life-damaging juvenile detention or the child welfare system.

The highly effective crisis intervention programs served 6,373 young people across the state in 2012. The impact is significant:

  • More than half of the referrals came from police, probation and the courts;

  • 85 percent of youth return home or to a family-approved living arrangement;

  • Less than 6 percent end up in secure confinement or as wards of the state; and

  • 77 percent successfully complete their case plans.

In short, CCBYS provides hope to kids and families and a second chance to stay together and address their problems in a healthy and productive way.

CCBYS also saves substantial money. The average cost of serving a 15-year-old youth is $1,733. The annual cost per youth in Department of Children and Family Services is $36,174 — and the average 15-year-old ward will remain in state care for six more years. A commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice averages more than $98,000 per year.

CCBYS is one example of good policy and practice, and, like so many other effective approaches across the United States, its budget has been cut. We cannot stop at making good policy. We must see the job through and that means financially supporting programs so there is someone to call at 12:30 in the morning.

California Bucks Trend by Rejecting New Limits on ‘Solitary’

At the first-ever congressional hearing on the subject of solitary confinement, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois recently observed that it’s not always “the worst of the worst” who are subjected to the practice. Mentally-ill inmates, immigrants and juvenile offenders are put in solitary as well. And perhaps, said a series of witnesses at the hearing, the time has come to rethink the issue.

Many states are now doing just that. But the debate is not devoid of its own unique politics.

In California, for instance, a bid to require everyto require every-four-hour mental-health  evaluations of minors who are “segregated” from other wards died a quick death this spring — even though the Golden State’s legislature is one of the nation’s most liberal and the measure was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. The legislation failed by one vote to move beyond the seven-member state Senate Public Safety Committee. Three of five Democrats voted for the bill, including the Senate’s top leader, Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. But two Democrats and the committee’s only two Republicans voted against it.

Depending on who’s talking, the idea faltered because it was flawed, unnecessary and would cost the Golden State money it doesn’t have — or it died because law-enforcement groups with savvy lobbying and financial clout leaned on key legislators to kill it. The dispute is the latest in a series of Sacramento battles over policies pitting liberal juvenile-justice reformers against cops and corrections officers.

State-based reform

Others states have been forced into statewide restrictions. Last year, in response to a lawsuit, Mississippi agreed to tight limits on solitary confinement for juveniles who are in adult prison. Montana settled a lawsuit by adopting strict terms, including a requirement that wardens approve putting juveniles into solitary or “behavior management” isolation for more than 72 hours. In April, West Virginia joined six other states in prohibiting solitary confinement as a way to punish minors in detention.

That same month, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatryannounced its opposition to solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, warning that the practice deepens depression, psychosis and suicidal tendencies. Indeed, a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study showed that half of the 110 suicides by juvenile wards over a four-year period in the late 1990s were committed by those in solitary confinement. More than two-thirds had been put into facilities for non-violent offenses.

Adult inmates in California who’ve been held in solitary for years as a way to sever gang ties are currently suing the state, arguing that solitary’s corrosive psychological impact undermines their ability to re-enter society.

Against this backdrop, earlier this year the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a small Oakland, Calif., nonprofit that works with parents of juvenile offenders, approached state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, about the possibility of sponsoring legislation that would put limits on solitary for juveniles.

Yee’s bill, introduced in February, called for licensed mental-health clinicians to evaluate minors placed in isolation within an hour’s time and then every four hours afterward. Staff would have to create intervention plans before putting any minor identified as suicidal in isolation. Staff would also need a supervisor’s written permission before isolating wards for more than 24 hours straight in a one-week period.

The regulations would have applied to state institutions, where mostly more serious or violent juvenile offenders — about 1,000 now — are held, as well as to county facilities, where many thousands more mostly lower-level wards are now housed.

“We spend so much money locking up kids,” said Jennifer Kim, a legislative advocate for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “Let’s divert some of that to make sure that we not exacerbating mental-health issues.”

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Division of Juvenile Justice, strongly disputed the need for the bill, calling it a “solution looking for problem that doesn’t exist,” at least in state juvenile-offender facilities. The state’s three facilities are now under strict court orders, and treatment of offenders is monitored by outside auditors and highly prescribed, he said. “There is no solitary confinement,” Sessa said.

But Lina Roldan, a Southern California mother, says that in late 2010 her teenage son was put into isolation after using a plastic fork to try to cut his neck at a California state-run correctional facility in the city of Stockton. In response, she said, guards put the teen into a room she said wards called “the box” for 24 hours. Another time, Roldan said, her son was in isolation in a room for 48 hours straight. She claims he received no mental-health help.

“They waited until he cut his head open, hitting it against the wall, and then they sent him to a hospital,” she said in an interview.

Sessa said he couldn’t discuss the ward’s specific case. But he called Roldan’s characterization “untrue,” and said rules require wards to get mental-health assessments when they enter facilities and to benefit from frequent psychological aid if their condition requires it. “There is no ‘box,’ “he said. “This isn’t the Shawshank Redemption.”

In 2005, state juvenile facilities came under attack after an 18-year-old ward, Joseph Daniel Maldonado, hanged himself in the same youth facility where Roldan said her son was isolated in 2010. A state inspector general report, also in 2005, blamed staff for failing to respond to respond to Maldonado’s pleas for psychological help and for failing to enter his room quickly after knocks on his door went unanswered during guard rounds. The report revealed how Maldonado and other wards had been confined to their cells all day for eight weeks. The previous year, guards had been filmed punching and kicking wards.

For the safety of other wards and guards, Sessa said, guards do move to segregate offenders in their cells if they become violent or disruptive. Counselors are now required, he said, to immediately approach youths who’ve been segregated to try to get them talk through what might be causing outbursts. Wards showing any indication of suicidal tendencies can also be segregated in special cells, under close watch.

Sessa accused the Ella Baker Center of spreading “misinformation,” and of wrongly suggesting that California’s three state juvenile facilities — there used to be a dozen — remain as rife with scandalous practices as was alleged in lawsuits that led tocourt-ordered changes beginning in 2004.

“The courts are practically running the facilities,” he said.

Still, last year a state audit found nearly 250 violations of California’s state juvenile system’s guidelines, not regulations, against isolating wards for more than 21 hours straight.  Court orders require that 40 to 70 percent of wards’ waking hours are spent in constructive activities, said Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, which sued state juvenile prisons.

Sessa did not contest the audit’s findings. But the violations, he said, largely involved a small number of wards with violent tendencies, some with gang affiliations.

Barry Krisberg, a criminal-justice expert at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, said he is more concerned now about the county facilities than the state institutions. “There could be whole wings where they could be spending days in confinement. Nobody knows,” said Krisberg, who has served as a monitor of court orders at state facilities.

Existing regulations that do govern counties are vague, Krisberg said, and give wide latitude for facility supervisors to set rules for isolating wards for up to 24 hours for a minor violation of facility rules, or longer for a major offense.

In April, as Yee’s bill went before the public safety committee, the Los Angeles Times published a spirited editorial that urged legislators to approve the measure. The Times called solitary confinement a practice that remains “as dark as ever” and stands in contrast to California’s progress in improving rehabilitation of young offenders. The editorial also singled out two Los Angeles Democrats who had abstained on a first round of voting on and pressed them to embrace the measure.

Unaffordable?

As debate on Yee’s bill began, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and juvenile-justice officials did not take a position. But law-enforcement unions and associations, representing state and county and local police, deputies and probation officers, weighed in against it.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the state prison guards’ union, summed up its opposition in testimony at a committee hearing and in a letter to legislators. “We recognize that many parties believed that solitary confinement was overused in the past” at state facilities, the guards said. However, the union said, court orders have produced reforms. Yee’s bill would “far exceed” those reforms and “compromise the programming of the ward population,” the guards said, as well as the safety of guards and other wards.

The prison guards are a powerful force at the state capitol. Their clout in Sacramento stretches back to the 1980s, when the union first became heavily involved in law-and-order campaigns. It financed a big chunk of the state’s 1994 landmark Three Strikes ballot initiative, which began filling prisons. The union has continued to enjoy a prominent role publicly and in negotiations among lawmakers over public safety reforms and correctional spending.  With the state facing lawsuits over overcrowded prisons and pressure to cut costs, the union has often offered its own “blueprints” for change.

“They’re the highest paid guards in the country,” said Krisberg of UC Berkeley. And even though the state’s fiscal crisis has required the union to accept hits in employee benefits, he said, “they got everything they wanted (at the capitol) this year.”

Krisberg said that local law enforcement is enjoying extra clout right now because the state, in cost-cutting reforms, is transferring responsibility for many adult state inmates to local control.

The California State Sheriff’s Association, one of those local interest groups, argued that the definition of solitary in Yee’s bill was too vague and would leave counties vulnerable to lawsuits and the cost of new training. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, with more than 63,000 members, said the bill “would put an additional burden on counties and raise the cost of housing juveniles.” The Chief Probation Officers of California, whose members are now responsible for most young offenders, added that “counties and state facilities do not have licensed mental health staff working 24/7 to perform this function.”

Complaints about costs are especially potent right now in California. The state’s fiscal problems have resulted in deep budget cuts that have chopped spending locally and statewide. This year, legislators have wrestled over how to bridge a $16 billion budget deficit.

Yee’s bill died before its costs were estimated as part of the legislative process. Kim of the Ella Baker Center said that mental-health evaluations shouldn’t be a cost problem given that taxpayers already spend $185,000 a year on each ward in state custody. Sessa didn’t disagree.

David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program in the Bay Area and a longtime collaborator with staff officials on reforms, said county probation departments have more reason to be concerned about costs — but only to a point.

California’s counties are getting a “big state payout” as part of a dramatic juvenile-justice shift that legislators voted for in 2007. The idea was to start requiring that the state’s 58 counties take responsibility for most wards rather than the state. Community-based rehabilitation programs seemed to work better at less cost.

Legislators in 2007 gave counties $117,000 for each ward they took, plus $300 million in construction money. Counties have continued to split almost $100 million more a year from the state. This year Gov. Jerry Brown proposed distributing another $200 million to counties if legislators would authorize shutting down the last three state-run facilities and transfer all wards to local custody. Probation chiefs and corrections officers — even union teachers at state facilities — fought the idea, arguing counties were ill-prepared to take more offenders. Brown dropped the idea.

Mark Varela, Ventura County’s probation chief and the probation chiefs’ legislative chair, told the Center that his county actually could have handled the mental-health evaluations of wards that Yee’s bill required. Ventura, he said, is using various streams of state money to pay for a “crisis team” that probation can turn to in mental-health emergencies. That move was in line with the recommendations of a statewide task force last year.  But Varela conceded that other counties may be facing other kinds of fiscal problems.

Wielding power in Sacramento

The Ella Baker Center advocates say they can’t help but think that debate over proposals like theirs is clouded by the campaign-donations and high-priced lobbying game at the Capitol. Law-enforcement associations “always seem to seem to have unlimited resources to influence politicians,” Kim said.

To compete, the Ella Baker Center spent about $115,110 last year and through this past March on lobbying to push Yee’s solitary-confinement bill, among other criminal-justice proposals. At the same time, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent more than $421,511 lobbying on an array of bills. The Chief Probation Officers group also spent nearly $370,000 to push its view on the budget and other proposed measures, according to state lobbying records.

The correctional guards union has also given California politicians or committees more than $12.4 million in contributions since 2003, according to the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

On March 16, state records show, the guards union gave the California Democratic Party $60,000. On March 9, it gave the California Republican Party $15,000. And on May 30, it gave $10,000 to a newly minted California Black Political Action Committee, which is based in Los Angeles.

The three Democrats who voted for Yee’s bill and two who voted against it have all received donations from prison guards or other law-enforcement groups during their careers. But none have received more from the prison guards than Sen. Ron Calderon, Democrat of Los Angeles. He cast one of the votes against Yee’s bill after initially abstaining.

Between 2004 and 2010, Calderon received $14,050 in donations from the guards union. In March of this year, he reported a $3,900 donation pledged last July from the guards union, records show. The donation went to Calderon’s committee for a run at state controller in 2014.

Rocky Rushing, Calderon’s chief of staff, said Calderon’s vote had nothing to do with donations. “It’s not like that at all,” he said. “We were supportive of the intent of the legislation.”  The costs of mental-health evaluations of wards every four hours, which Yee’s bill required, would have been “astronomical,” Rushing said. Advocates refused to budge on this matter, he said. Kim of the Baker Center said she felt that delineating a specific number of hours was necessary or checks might not happen.

Sen. Curren Price, the other Los Angeles Democrat and committee member — who also abstained before voting against Yee’s bill — said in a statement that he considered Yee’s bill “a provocation” that could have “compromised safety inside juvenile facilities …by ignoring the concerns of rank-and-file personnel.”

Price, who is the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, additionally said the measure would have interfered with court-ordered improvements, and burdened counties. He’s “sympathetic to the issue,” however, and said he’s willing to consider alternatives to regulating solitary confinement of minors. The Ella Baker advocates, who submitted written testimony to Durbin’s office for the June 19 Congressional hearing, said they will try again to get strict, statewide regulations or to stop solitary confinement of juveniles.

Photo from Free Fahad.

SAMHSA, MacArthur Foundation to Promote Diversion Programs for Youth With Mental Health Issues

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have teamed up for a new $1 million project to divert youth with behavioral health conditions away from the juvenile justice system and into community-based programs and services.

According to SAMHSA, 60-70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental disorder and more than 60 percent suffer from a substance abuse disorder. Many of these youth, SAMHSA says, wind up in the juvenile justice system rather than receiving treatment for their underlying disorders.

Up to eight states will be selected competitively to participate in the new collaborative initiative. If selected, states would receive support to develop and initiate policies and programs to divert youth away from the juvenile justice system early.

"This innovative effort will help ensure that fewer at- risk young people fall through the cracks and into an overburdened juvenile justice system that is very often unable to address their underlying behavioral health problems," SAMHSA Administrator Pam Hyde said in a press release. "This initiative focuses on helping divert these youth whenever possible to community-based behavioral health services that can actually turn their lives around for the better."

The program will combine SAMHSA’s Policy Academy initiative and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Action Network and will emphasize reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color with mental and/or substance use disorders in the juvenile justice system while incorporating mental, substance use and co-occurring screening and assessment practices throughout the juvenile justice system recognizing the important roles of evidence-based practice, treatment, and trauma-informed services.

The National Center for Mental Health, Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc. and the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. have agreed to coordinate the proposed initiative.

“The states selected will have access to leading experts in the field and the latest research and information on front-end diversion policies and programs for youth with co-occurring disorders,” said Laurie Garduque, Director of Justice Reform for the MacArthur Foundation. “With the seamless integration of SAMHSA’s and MacArthur’s demonstrated strategies for effective training and technical assistance, we will promote broader diffusion and new adaptations of models of best practices to states committed to systems reform.”