Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series.

The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.

Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.

The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.

Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.

"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.

"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."

"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.

In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.

Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.

Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."

"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."

After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."

Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.

"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.

Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.

In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.

Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.

"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.

Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.

"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.

"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."

Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.

"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.

"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."

Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.

"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at

Former Inmate, Advocates and Attorneys Honored for Work to Reform Sentencing

Sharletta C. Evans with Joanne Lewis, the mother of one of the killers. After Joanne asked Sharletta to forgive her for her son's actions, the two became close friends and now speak together about forgiveness and mercy.
Sharletta C. Evans (right) with Joanne Lewis, the mother of one of the killers of her son. After Joanne asked Sharletta to forgive her for her son's actions, the two became close friends and now speak together about forgiveness and mercy.

WASHINGTON — Wine and tears poured and tissues were borrowed as several juvenile justice reform advocates were honored for their work to end life without parole for juvenile offenders.

The first award winners at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth’s highly emotional Hope & Healing awards ceremony Tuesday were Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, the advocates working to earn “Making a Murderer” star Brendan Dassey his freedom.

Gary Tyler, sentenced to death at age 16 in 1974 by an all-white Louisiana jury, was honored for his work while incarcerated and his anti-death penalty advocacy. His legal team — made up of George Kendall, Mary Howell, Majeeda Snead, Corrine Irish and Emily Ratner — was also honored for the decadeslong and eventually successful struggle to free Tyler.

Sharletta Evans received an award for her work in bringing victims and offenders together to promote restorative justice after her 3-year-old son, Casson, was killed in a driveby shooting.

“[Selecting the award recipients] is always a difficult decision, because there are so many extraordinary people doing this work,” said Jody Lavy, the campaign’s executive director. “We try to demonstrate the different facets of the work in Healing & Hope, because we are a convener of people who are working to end life without parole for children.”

There is still much to do to end life without parole for juveniles, she said. Age-appropriate punishments should be developed to recognize juveniles’ ongoing mental development and ability to grow and become rehabilitated, she said.

Gary Tyler and his legal team hold their awards, with Campaign Executive Director Jody Kent Lavy at far right.

In the past three years, the number of states that have barred such sentencing has tripled, due in part to the efforts of advocates like those honored at the event, Lavy said. The event raised $135,000, $17,700 from live donations, $2,300 from the silent auction and $115,000 from ticket sales and sponsorships. The money will go to continuing the campaign’s work, such as working to decrease the number of states that allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole.

Lavy opened the ceremony, saying that after the presidential election, there has never been a time when healing and hope are more necessary in America.

Drizin and Nirider’s award was painted by Ken Sanford, a Pennsylvania inmate serving a life without parole sentence. After years of work, a federal judge has overturned Dassey’s conviction, but the Wisconsin attorney general has filed a motion to temporarily block his release. Drizin said there is more work to be done to get Dassey home for Thanksgiving.

“I think all of us are feeling that we need to be healed, and we need hope today,” he said. “I know that we can get through these dark times. I know that this community will continue on a path of justice for these kids.”

Throughout his career in juvenile justice law, Drizin successfully worked to end the death penalty for juveniles. He also represented Derrick Hardaway, who was termed a 14-year-old “superpredator” in 1996 and sentenced to 45 years. “We continued to work on Derrick’s case after he went away,” Drizin said. “I kept in touch with Derrick over the years and he has become an amazing young man. Someone who wants to get out and talk to kids in the juvenile detention center.”

Evans spoke of the need for healing and forgiveness in her acceptance speech. She was joined by her friend Joanne Williams, the mother of one of the teenagers involved in the death of her son, Casson. Evans has been a leader in Colorado to promote legislation like the restorative justice law passed in 2013. She credited God for inspiring her to forgive her son’s murderers and become a juvenile justice reform advocate.

“In amazement, I sit back and look at myself at a distance and watch the work that’s being done by the power of God’s spirit,” she said. “Being a victim family member, you have to heal before you have hope, and I embrace every opportunity … to heal properly and that’s what gave me the hope that these teenagers, now adults, would see the light of day. I am so grateful to be an advocate.”

Tyler was joined on stage by his legal team and more than a dozen formerly incarcerated juveniles. He was sentenced to death in 1974 after he was wrongly convicted of murder. After setbacks and years of work, he was freed April 29.

“Gary was in solitary confinement for eight years,” Kendall said. “Most people who do that kind of time never recover, and somehow Gary did. I don’t know of another prisoner, at least that I’ve had the honor to work with, that built the kind of purposeful life that Gary built.”

Tyler thanked his legal team and the older inmates who helped him survive adult prison as a juvenile. He had volunteered to take care of elderly inmates and eventually cared for the same men who helped him as a youth. He also began the Angola Drama Club, a prison theater troupe that performed throughout Louisiana.

Cotton Out of Step on Justice Reform, Out of Line in Blocking JJDPA

Naomi Head ShotWith less than 100 days remaining on the 114th Congress’ legislative calendar, time is running out for Congress to come together to protect our children and our communities.

Passage of S 1169, a bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) should be a no-brainer. The legislation includes common-sense updates like stopping the shackling of incarcerated girls while they are giving birth, and eliminating exceptions that currently permit our children to be locked up for behaviors like skipping school.

The bill, which was first passed more than 40 years ago with broad support from Republicans, Democrats and an array of child-serving and community organizations, is up for reauthorization now, and would incorporate a decade’s worth of new research into the existing law.

The broad support the JJDPA had in the 1970s still exists today. Nearly 5,000 law enforcement officers from across the country have signed on in support, as have the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National District Attorneys Association, 44 faith-based organizations and more than 100 national and state-based child advocacy organizations.

In February, the legislation was sent to the Senate for consideration. The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, were confident that it would prove uncontroversial. The pair submitted the bill for approval through a process known as unanimous consent.

Much as it sounds, unanimous consent requires that all members of the Senate agree to a legislative proposal in order for it to earn approval. Ninety-nine senators supported the bill’s passage. One senator alone objected to S 1169 — Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who has also opposed the Senate’s criminal justice reform proposal, S 2123.

In particular, Sen. Cotton said he disliked S 1169’s phaseout of the so-called valid court order (VCO) exception. The VCO exception was added to the JJDPA in the 1980s. The measure permits judges to incarcerate children in need of services for behaviors such as missing curfew, running away from home and skipping school, if the behavior violates a previous order from the court. S 1169 requires states to stop using the VCO exception within three years of the law’s passage.

This morning, Cotton spoke before a group at the Hudson Institute in Washington, District of Columbia, about how reducing incarceration can, according to him, decrease community safety and increase recidivism. According to Sen. Cotton, “if anything we have an underincarceration problem.”

[Related: Advocates Still Hopeful for Action on Stalled JJDPA Reauthorization]

This assertion is patently false and runs contrary to voluminous research that has led policymakers on both sides of the aisle to recognize the social and financial benefits of community-based alternatives for low-level offenses, and to push for reform of the adult criminal justice system, reducing our nation’s reliance on incarceration. The reality is that incarceration is a costly undertaking, both socially and financially.

In the juvenile justice system, the decision to incarcerate can carry even more far-reaching consequences. Placing a child in a juvenile prison increases their risk for physical and sexual assault.

Sen. Cotton’s own state has had a particularly damning track record. Half the children in Arkansas’ juvenile prisons are there for noncriminal behaviors. A 2014 report from the Arkansas Disability Rights Center found that children were not segregated by offense, were subjected to assault by staff and were in some cases held far longer than their offense merited.

In a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most recent year for which data is available, Arkansas’ Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center was among the top 10 facilities with the highest rates of sexual victimization of youth.

Incarcerating children has also been shown to increase the likelihood that they will come back into contact with the juvenile justice system, eventually wind up in the deep end of the system and later are more likely come into contact with the criminal justice system as adults. These risks come with an average price tag of more than $200 per day per child.

Facts such as these have led many conservatives to see that incarceration’s dangers — particularly for the young — far outweigh its once-perceived benefits. “[T]here's been a mountain of research over the last few decades that has shown that different alternatives to prison work, whether it's problem-solving courts, electronic monitoring, treatment diversions for the mentally ill, we've had huge advances in risk assessment instruments that can better match offenders with the right programs,” conservative political analyst Marc Levin told NPR in a 2012 interview. Levin is also policy director at Right on Crime.

Arkansas juvenile justice professionals agree. Steve Nawojczyk, who was the director of youth services for the city of North Little Rock for seven years, told news reporters in an interview earlier this month that “Putting kids in jail is not the solution. Some kids need to go to jail, there are some very bad kids. We need to, in Arkansas, do a better job of assessment on the front end; we need to be sure that children, when they are in jail, that they get the proper mental health services.”

Services such as these, that juvenile justice professionals in Arkansas know to be key to really helping our children, are included in S 1169. The bill promotes trauma-informed care such as mental health and drug treatment programs, and provides for mental health screenings for children who encounter the juvenile justice system. Measures that, unlike incarceration, are supported by research. The time is now to listen to the research and reauthorize the JJDPA.

Naomi Smoot is senior policy associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

More related articles:

Arkansas Senator Holding Up JJDPA May Be Listening to Wrong Counties

An Open Letter to U.S. Senator Tom Cotton

Lawmakers Hope to Bring JJDPA to Senate Floor Again

Kansas Overhauls Juvenile Justice System, Emphasizes Community-Based Reinvestment

Kansas State Capitol Building
Kansas State Capitol Building

Kansas has become the latest state to overhaul its juvenile justice system, with a set of reforms projected to reduce the number of juveniles in custody by more than half and save tens of millions of dollars.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, signed the sweeping legislation, SB 367, after it cleared the Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year with only a handful of dissenting votes during a tough budget season.

hub_arrow_2-01“This bill is about being smart on crime. It aligns our juvenile justice system with what research shows works best to reduce victimization, keep families strong, and guide youth toward a better path,” he said in a news release.

Like recent reforms in other states, the law aims to reduce the juvenile justice system’s reliance on youth incarceration and emphasize the use of community-based treatment programs for young offenders.

Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at Pew Charitable Trusts, said the reforms address the system from top to bottom.

“It is easily one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive juvenile justice reforms in recent memory,” he said. Pew assists states with analyses and policy recommendations.

The reforms are projected to cut out-of-home placements by 60 percent by fiscal year 2022 and save $72 million during a five-year period beginning in fiscal year 2018. Each year, the state will direct any savings from a reduced reliance on youth incarceration to a Juvenile Justice Improvement Fund that will pay for community-based programming.

“It provides a continuous, positive feedback loop when savings are reinvested in the programs that are improving the success rate, which in turn saves more money,” Gelb said.

The law also:

  • establishes a multiagency Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee;
  • phases out the use of group home placements except in limited circumstances; and
  • establishes case length limits that determine how long a juvenile can remain under the court’s jurisdiction.

Some prosecutors in Kansas are skeptical of the new law.

The Kansas County and District Attorneys Association said in a news release that the law will "undermine the discretion of the courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public."

The group also is concerned about whether funding will be adequate to support the reforms and said prosecutors should have had more say in shaping it.

"A bill this expansive, and potentially impactful deserved more input from those ultimately responsible for its successful implementation. That said, the KCDAA will remain vigilant and actively engaged in the process necessary to ensure this bill achieves the stated goals," the group said.

Kansas is the sixth state to participate in a juvenile justice reform project run by Pew, after Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii, South Dakota and West Virginia. A bipartisan group of judges, district attorneys, law enforcement officers and public defenders began studying the juvenile justice system in June 2015 before making recommendations to the legislature in December.

The group found that while the juvenile arrest rate in Kansas had dropped more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, the number of youth under community supervisions or in residential placements hadn’t fallen as fast. In addition, a growing number of juveniles in out-of-home placements were lower-level offenders, a trend the group attributed to a lack of community-based options.

State Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican who participated in the working group, said he was skeptical about the idea of reforms at first.

“My initial reaction was this is just another way to coddle kids,” he said.

But the data won him over, turning him into a champion for the bill in the Senate. He said it became clear that early intervention and community-based treatment held the most promise to get young people on the right track, rather than locking them up — a case he also made to his colleagues.

“Rather than keeping kids from reoffending we were teaching them to reoffend,” he said.
Benet Magnuson, executive director of the nonprofit justice center Kansas Appleseed, a member of Kansans United for Youth Justice, said he’s thrilled with the legislation.

The group will be encouraging communities to embrace reforms, especially the promise of reinvestment.

“The law’s in place, the funding’s coming into place, but now it’s up to the communities in Kansas to really implement the reforms,” he said.

This story has been updated.

Ex-Foster Youth Turned Lawmaker Prioritizes Spending for Foster Care Reform

WASHINGTON — In a community center decked with streamers and balloons, Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas urged a small crowd of teenagers to the center of the room for a rap contest last Friday.

“Somebody might get discovered tonight! I may have a record deal for you!” she joked, opening her arms wide in welcome amid the clamor of a communal birthday party for teenagers and young adults who are dealing with homelessness, abuse and neglect, or other troubles.

They inched their way to Thomas, then grew more confident as she introduced each one, eventually eager to show off what they could do as she called out their favorite beats to the deejay.

Just hours before, Thomas, 28, had been on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives, where she represents District 39. She counts improving the lives of foster care youth among her top priorities.

There, she wants to make the case to her fellow lawmakers about the importance of improving the foster care system. But she also constantly looks for ways to improve the lives of foster youth and disconnected youth with her personal engagement. As a former foster youth, she knows firsthand the importance of encouragement and support.

[Related: Breaking the Cycle, One Young Person at a Time]

“You just never know what you may say to that child to change their life,” she said.

IMG_3484The birthday party at Covenant House Washington, which provides housing, education and employment assistance, and other services to teens and young adults, was one way to build those kinds of connections. Thomas has helped hold similar parties at Covenant House’s Atlanta location and was thrilled when volunteers in Washington picked up on the idea, which she hopes will spread nationwide.

“It makes me feel like it’s my birthday every time. I feel like for two hours, these kids forget they’re homeless,” she said. “The feeling that you get just seeing kids have fun makes it worth it.”

Thomas, who bounced among several foster homes beginning at age 15, said young people — especially foster youth — need to know that their perspectives matter.

“No matter what’s going on, you have to use your voice. That’s the story of Erica Thomas: I had nothing but my mouth,” she said.

Since graduating from Oakwood University in Alabama, Thomas started a nonprofit called Speak Out Loud that runs events and raises money for foster youth, and was elected to the state legislature in 2014.

Thomas, a Democrat, said she’s pleased with the direction Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and the Republican-led legislature are moving in to improve foster care. But she  said she will push for more funding to improve the system.

She sits on a commission that is reviewing foster care workers’ caseloads and believes the research the group is doing will help make her case.

“Once we show the data, and that the data doesn’t lie, I think that we’ll be able to move in the right direction to swaying the hearts of the majority to see these kids really need the money in the budget,” she said.

Roger Newton contributed to this story.

The Truth Behind Obama’s Juvenile Justice Reform

Alton PitreLately I’ve read so many articles on juvenile and criminal justice reform laws being passed it’s surreal. At first glance these reforms momentarily swept me off my feet.

Last month, in a series of executive actions, President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for all juveniles in the federal prison system and for inmates who commit low-level infractions. The new rule prescribes that a prisoner cannot be punished with solitary confinement for a first offense for longer than 60 days, instead of the existing maximum of 365 days. Roughly 10,000 federal inmates will be affected by this reform.

While the media labels these reforms as major keys toward unlocking justice, I can’t dwell on this but need to keep working on more reforms.

The truth is, hardly any kids will be directly impacted by this because there are practically no juveniles in federal prisons. In December 2015, the Bureau of Prisons recorded only 26 people under 18 in federal custody.

This information immediately brought me back down to earth. I am a firm believer in maintaining a positive outlook but I am also a man who understands reality. Even so, Obama’s reform can be a huge blueprint for states to follow.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed by Obama, he emphasized the story of Kalief Browder and the need to rethink the inhumane practices that ultimately led to the 22-year-old’s death. Browder was 16 in 2010 when he was incarcerated at Rikers Island, awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent nearly two years in solitary confinement enduring all kinds of abuse. He was eventually released, but due to the extreme trauma from solitary confinement he committed suicide.

The juvenile system failed Browder and his family every step of the way, from his arrest for the minor crime he allegedly committed to the way he was treated and how long he was kept without trial at Rikers Island. But that’s another story.

Our nation’s callous use of solitary confinement, particularly for youth who are at such vulnerable stages in their lives, is the problem that needs to be fixed. Incarceration is no real solution to reducing crime and changing lives, but if a person must be imprisoned they should not be subjected to solitary, especially for long periods.

Secluding a person from human contact in a limited space that way is not at all healthy, whether you are isolated inside a bedroom or even worse, a small prison cell. I don’t even like being by myself inside my dorm room all day here at Morehouse College.

[Related: The Handbook of Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice]

About five years ago, I was subjected to this cruel punishment at 18 inside a compound at juvenile hall. Because of my alleged charges, I was considered a “high-risk offender” along with all the other juveniles in Los Angeles County who were being tried as adults. We were segregated from the kids in general population inside a gated prison that housed two buildings with four special units divided by age and sometimes race. Often we were even separated from each other within our own units without any reading material or anything else.

I was already battling the catastrophic predicament of being locked up for a crime I had not been involved in. Having to be crammed into a mansion-sized walk-in closet all day for weeks at a time was not helping my rehabilitation.

There were no toilets inside our rooms. Depending on the senior probation staff in charge that day, we could be cheated of our only hour or two mandated for us to be spent in recreation outside the rooms. My imagination can hardly fathom what it is like to experience solitary confinement in an actual adult prison.

President Obama’s good intentions are not  unappreciated. I love our first black president and the morals he fights for and stands for.

I am just not as overwhelmingly happy as I was when I first heard the news that he banned the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in the federal prison system. I’m glad there are fewer than 30 kids in federal prisons and I know that Obama has limited power when it comes to changing state laws.

But it is astonishing and disappointing to know that only a tiny percentage of juveniles will be directly affected by the new ban.

I will continue to pray and advocate for the ban of solitary confinement on juveniles all across the United States. If America is serious about changing the trajectory of juvenile and criminal justice reform for the better, then state and local governments must act to apply this reform. It is an imperative component to changing and rehabilitating the lives of our youth.

I believe in prevention and alternatives to incarceration for kids, but for those who must be incarcerated, providing the necessary treatment and proper resources will only improve our justice system and ultimately the lives of the kids. Treating juveniles with care while they are incarcerated will enable them to return to society as productive members and reduce the need to lock them up when they are older, saving our country tons of money.

As Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Alton Pitre is a 24-year-old native of Los Angeles. He is a juvenile justice ambassador, serves on the Member Board for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and is a sociology major at Morehouse College.

More related articles:

California Gov. Jerry Brown Backs No More Automatic Adult Charges for Teens in New Initiative

Attorneys Need to Be Alert to Youth Who May Be Put in Solitary

How Cities Can Lead in the Effort to Arrest Fewer Youth

Virginia Needs to Track, Reform School Policing, Report Says



The Virginia school policing system needs an overhaul that emphasizes training, data collection and a clear role for officers in schools, says a new report from the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Without a better system, the state will continue to criminalize students for behaviors that schools should deal with, not law enforcement, the center said.

Virginia leads the country in referrals of students to law enforcement, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

The state doesn’t track how students enter the pipeline that leads from school to the criminal justice system or track measures such as school-based searches, interrogations, uses of force, arrests or court referrals.

“We’re spending tens of millions of dollars but we have no data, no sense of what’s good or bad,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney at the legal aid center and co-author of the report.

Other problems in the system include a lack of training for school resource officers, burdensome mandatory reporting to law enforcement of acts that include misdemeanors and noncrimes, and a requirement that SROs help enforce school rules, not just laws, the report said.

Since the release of the CPI analysis, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has sought recommendations on how to improve school policing and initiated a “Classrooms not Courtrooms” initiative focused on curbing suspensions and expulsions, law enforcement referrals, and race- and disability-based disparities.

Langberg said he’s optimistic the state momentum, combined with greater national attention to the problems of school policing, will continue across political lines during the legislative session, which begins Wednesday.

The report includes recommendations for lawmakers, such as clarifying SROs’ responsibilities at schools, implementing training programs and ending the mandatory participation of prosecutors in truancy cases.

The report also includes recommendations for the state Department of Education on data collection and the development of a comprehensive memorandum of understanding for school-based officers.

“I think this has a lot of potential given how common sense some of these reforms are,” Langberg said.

Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal: ‘The Ultimate Criminal Justice Reform’

It’s been 2½ years since Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a landmark overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system into law. The measure has resulted in a sharp drop in commitments to the state’s youth correctional system and is expected to save tens of millions of dollars by replacing incarceration with community supervision.

It’s too early for comprehensive recidivism numbers. But the state Department of Juvenile Justice says commitments to state facilities are down 20 percent since the law took effect — and it won’t need to build two new facilities that had been projected before the reforms.


JJIE recently caught up with Deal to talk about how things are going so far, whether he plans to revisit some of Georgia’s more controversial practices and why he sees education as the next piece of the puzzle to be solved.

NOTE: Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You’re getting good reviews for your juvenile justice reforms. How do you think it’s going so far?

Nathan Deal interview | Part one

A. I think it’s a remarkable success. Quite honestly, we’ve seen the success in a shorter time frame than I had originally anticipated.

We started on the adult side, focused on adults that were coming into our prison system but were being classified as nonviolent. We decided we could divert many of those nonviolent offenders into accountability courts — the drug courts, DUI courts, increasingly mental health courts and more recently veterans’ courts. And that’s been a huge success. In excess of 4,000 individuals in the first quarter of last year were in accountability courts across our state, and the number of those courts continue to grow, and we’re glad to see that. ...

The second year was juvenile justice reform. It was modeled after the adult program, but by the very distinction of being juveniles, it had to be done a little differently.

We approached it by identifying the counties that were sending the largest number of juveniles into our juvenile justice system, and we did it on a grant program. Those counties became eligible for the first round of grants to put in place local alternative diversion programs, and since that time, in the budget, we have expanded the money, and we have continued to expand that across the state. It’s more difficult to do in our more rural, outlying areas of Georgia, but nevertheless the problems are there just as they are elsewhere.

We think that has been very successful ... Participating counties have seen felony commitments and placements in short-term programs drop 62 percent over a nine-month period. As a result, we’ve been able to close two juvenile detention centers. So that is a money-saving aspect of it, but we’re plowing that money into creating more of these local alternatives.

Q. The original projections were this program could save up to $85 million. How are actual results tracking with those projections?

A. I don’t have the dollar numbers on that, but when you see a 62 percent drop in incarceration — and when you consider that for a juvenile, the cost of one year of incarceration is in excess of $90,000 — it doesn’t take long for that to add up to a substantial sum of money. We’ll have more accurate figures by the end of next year. I would think that because the very nature of juvenile detention is sometimes short-term, it’s fluctuating. We’ll have a better feel for it next year.

Q. What’s been the biggest obstacle to implementation? Is there any part of the system you need to give a swift kick to get it turning?

A. Quite honestly, we’ve had very good response from the local communities, because it does require the local communities to be willing to participate in these alternative diversion programs. No matter what you do in criminal justice reform, when you are talking about alternatives to incarceration, you have to overcome the potential fear of the local community that their safety is being jeopardized. I think we have shown that is not the case in the local arena, and I believe these numbers that we’re seeing are also demonstrating that you are just as safe if not safer to have alternative programs in the juvenile arena as well.

Two other things have happened, and these are somewhat new. One is called the Georgia Preparatory Academy. They are focused on trying to award GEDs and technical certificates to juveniles who will be in our youth development centers. Back in May of this year, they had a graduation ceremony. They had 53 diplomas and GEDs and technical college certificates that were awarded to young people who were in pretty much all of our youth development centers across the state. That’s something I think we have to continue to focus on. Education is the one ingredient that is not only the most common denominator in the adult population, it‘s also the most common denominator in our juvenile population. Many if not most of the juveniles have either been kicked out of school, they’ve been suspended — some of them suspended indefinitely — or they were of the age where they just simply dropped out. The lack of education, the lack of skills, is the common denominator.

Another thing is the Annie E. Casey Foundation has awarded grants to our state. These work on a county-by-county basis, and it’s to try to encourage alternatives for low-risk juvenile offenders as we do in the adult population. We have two counties now that participate in it, and that’s Clayton and Rockdale counties ... Because Clayton County was involved in the program earlier, they adopted the initiative in 2003, and we’re told it resulted in an 80 percent decrease in the average daily population and less than 1 percent of county’s youth felony offenders were rearrested on a felony charge. Those are rather remarkable statistics. If we can replicate that with the use of the Annie E. Casey Foundation around the state, that will truly be phenomenal.

Q. Are there any counties or particular regions that have taken to these reforms more aggressively than others?

Nathan Deal interview | Part two
Nathan Deal interview | Part two

A. As far as I can tell most all of them have taken on the approach very successfully. As I said, the first year, because we didn’t have sufficient funds to do it all across the state, we identified the counties that were sending us the largest number of juveniles into the system. As you can imagine, those are the metro areas of state — the greater Atlanta area, Columbus, Augusta, Savannah, et cetera. In the more recent year, we have spread those grants out across the state, so we’re gradually moving them out to try to cover our entire state.

Q. How much money are we talking about going to things like raises? Are you having to hire more probation officers to handle more community supervision? Can you give me some way of quantifying that?

A. We put a slight pay raise in last year’s budget. Most of the time, pay raises, because they are across the board, are reflected in general budgets. That will be something we hope we can address in the upcoming budget in the next session of the General Assembly. But it will be an across-the-board type approach.

Q. So out of that projected $85 million, you don’t have a number for how much has been put back into the system so far?

A. I don’t at this point, because it’s an ongoing thing.

[Related: Cops in Schools Need Special Training About Children and Trauma]

Q. You were a juvenile judge at one point. How has that experience influenced this process for you? Is there any one case or set of kids that informed your thinking as you went ahead?

A. The most frustrating thing as a juvenile court judge was I pretty much had only two options for a young person that was in trouble that came before the court. One was to simply send them into the juvenile system, which was generally not a good alternative except in the most extreme cases. The other was to send them home, to the environment where they got in trouble in the first place, with very little assistance in terms of additional personnel other than a probation officer. That’s what we’ve tried to remedy on the reform side. We’ve given the juvenile judges more options. They’re not put in a posture of either something that may be considered too extreme or something that may be inappropriate. They have more options in their arsenal for dealing with these young people. I suppose that was the biggest thing. It was not a specific case, it was the overall context in which juvenile judges were having to operate.

Q. Recidivism is the big number that everybody looks at, but is there any other metric you look to as an indicator of success?


A. I would say it is the programs I’ve talked about here of improving their skill levels, their educational levels. That’s something that is very difficult to do, because most of them come into the system, I’ve been told, as much as three to four years behind where they should be, agewise, in terms of their skills. So it’s a very intensive, almost one-on-one type of approach to improve their educational skills. And by the very nature of the short term of duration in facilities, it has to be very concentrated. We’re trying to improve the ability to have those educational opportunities extended to the juveniles after they leave maybe a detention facility and move back into supervised probation. We have some programs that we’re working on that we think will allow us to do that, but it’s very difficult ... We have to work on ways in which we can accommodate them in which we can further their educational opportunities. That’s why these quasi-educational approaches, I think, are so important.

Q. Recently, the Casey Foundation came out with a call to phase out the last of the large, secure youth facilities. Is that something your administration is willing to take on that this point?

A. That’s a tough question. We have to always remember that any reform we have to put in place must have as its first priority keeping the public safe. We have juveniles now who are committing very serious crimes, and they may or may not, depending on the prosecuting attorneys, be treated as an adult for purposes of prosecution. And our law requires that if they are not of age, even if they’re convicted of the adult offense, they are still incarcerated in our juvenile facilities. We have to have facilities to handle that population group, because you’ve got everything from murderers right on down the line, even though by age they’re still classified as juveniles.

I don’t think you could ever totally do away with those kind of detention facilities. But can we provide better alternatives for those who do not have offenses of that high a caliber? Yes, and that is our goal That’s what we are continually working on.

Q. You just had a situation here where the state just had to pay out about $4 million in settlements to kids who were beaten up by one kid held at Eastman [Regional Youth Detention Center]. If you want to keep those facilities open, what do have you do to improve safety and avoid those kind of payouts?

A. That is an isolated incident, but it is a serious isolated incident. My personal thought is someone who is that dangerous is not appropriately housed in a juvenile facility. We don’t have the same kind of constraint alternatives for someone who’s classified as a juvenile. But if he’s a threat to the general population, which this individual has indicated on multiple occasions that he is, we have to be able to separate that person away from the general population. That sounds more like an adult situation, where you can confine them in solitary. We don’t have the same degree of latitude with the detention of juveniles.

That is an area which, in light of this case, that we’re going to have to take a serious look at. How do we balance the safety of the other young people who are in the system with the requirement to confine someone who’s classified as a juvenile, but who’s much more dangerous than the average population? That’s not an easy answer to come by.

Q. There have been periodic calls to revisit Senate Bill 440, the “Seven Deadly Sins” law that prosecutes kids as adults. You’ve got situations where people are doing long stretches in adult prisons for crimes they committed when they were 15 or 16. As you go forward, any plans to revisit that?

A. That may be an area that the Criminal Justice Reform commission may decide to look at. We hope we can keep them as an ongoing reviewing body. We‘ve already made some modifications, as you know, to revisit eligibility for adult offenders, to reclassify some of them in terms of parole eligibility. This is probably an area of that is of a similar nature. I don’t know whether the reform commission is currently looking at that, but it may be something they choose to look at.


Q. But it’s not a priority for you at this point?

A. Not at this point, because those that fit that definition are some of the most violent offenders we have, even though they may be of a young age.

Q. You’ve said your plan for opportunity schools is going to be the next piece of this. Louisiana’s model, which a lot of this is drawn from, has had its successes, but it’s also had its drawbacks. A lot of people have said they’ve played with the numbers to hit the marks they have. In your plan, how do you insulate it from that kind of criticism? What kind of steps do you have to keep that from happening?

A. In Louisiana, you had the hurricane, and the hurricane virtually demolished the entire school system in New Orleans, so they were able to start from scratch. Arguably, the New Orleans school system before the hurricane was one of the worst school systems in the entire country ... so their successes and their failures should be measured in light of where they were before they came in with what they call their Recovery School District. I think by that kind of measurement, they have been successful. I have personally visited there. We took a group of legislators and other interested people there last year. What we saw and what we heard was, ‘Yes, we’ve had some difficulties, but overall we’re making significant progress.’ When you take the worst of the worst, progress is sometimes very slow. But I was impressed with the attitude we saw from the administrators, from the teachers, and it appeared that they were much better than they were before the reforms. And I think that’s what we always look for.

Why is the Opportunity School District so important for Georgia? With almost seven out of 10 adults in our prison system having dropped out of school, the likelihood that a child going to chronically failing school is going to likewise fail and drop out are significantly increased from the regular school population. There is a direct linkage between lack of education and presence in a prison, and the crimes that go on between those points in time in a person’s life have many victims and cost everybody a lot of money, grief and heartache. The reason I call it the ultimate criminal justice reform is if you can get at the root, the most common denominator in criminal conduct — the lack of an education, the lack of a marketable skill — and you can remove those elements, then the likelihood of reducing your juvenile detention population and your adult criminal population are significantly enhanced.

Q. But you don’t have to look far. Atlanta had its own cheating scandal. There have been questions raised about how many kids really transfer or drop out. You have seen some of the same questions raised in New Orleans. Is there any extra effort in there to ensure the integrity of the numbers you’re using to base the system on?

A. I don’t think many people are arguing the accuracy of the numbers as to whether or not the schools are failing. That’s not in dispute ... I can’t take on reform of the education community in terms of the adults. I can only try to reform the processes under which they work. If somebody’s going to cheat, whether they be a student or they be a teacher, there’s very little that you can legislatively do to prevent that.

More related articles:

Senate Judiciary Approves Criminal Justice Bill with Juvenile Provisions

House Committee Hears Strong Calls for JJDPA Reauthorization

Cops in Schools Need Special Training About Children and Trauma

Timberlake-headshot-2015-bThe headlines and sound bites described behavior gone wrong — a teenager in a South Carolina classroom refusing to put away her cellphone and a police officer using physical force to respond to a nonthreatening situation. He arrested her for disturbing the classroom after upending her desk and dragging her across the classroom.

The viral video of the event creates disturbing questions about cops in schools. Less media attention was paid to the student demonstration that followed — 100 students walked out of the high school in protest of the firing of the sheriff’s deputy. The principal addressed the student demonstrators and acknowledged their feelings and viewpoints and then asked them to return to class with the reminder that “Spring Valley High is all about the business of teaching and learning.”

Unfortunately, this intersection between the frustration with teenage behavior and forcible police conduct is repeated throughout the United States. In September 2014, three Houston officers forcibly detained a teenage girl who refused to give up her cellphone in class. The video shows them taking her to the floor, with one officer kneeling on her head and another kneeling on her legs, while the third cuffs her. Even more shocking are the allegations in an ACLU suit against the Kenton County (Kentucky) Sheriff’s Office in another September 2014 incident. The suit alleges that an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl were handcuffed because of a school disturbance. The question is why?

School Resource Officers (SROs) were placed in schools during the 1990s as one of the responses to the perceived increase in school violence and as part of the evergreen war on drugs. Government grants were and still often are used to fund the salaries of SROs. When these funds run out, schools and municipal police departments negotiate the costs, often without considering the talents of the officers or the effects of their services.

hub_arrow_2-01Through this funding, schools found a way to outsource discipline and create more time for teaching and learning, but effective use of the resource requires much more than handing over the keys to the school. Community policing strategies support the informed use of police relationships in schools. When done right, officers perform good service to children and educational institutions alike.

How do we explain the kind of police behavior described above? I have no definitive answers, but I think there are areas to explore.

[Related: ‘Disturbing Schools’ Law and School Resource Officers Criminalize Teens]

First is staff selection. Some officers are assigned to schools because they don’t fit into traditional police roles. The public has little ability to judge this police management responsibility because much of their information comes from TV and movie dramas instead of real world knowledge or experience.

Second, all law enforcement officers operate outside the view and presence of their supervisors. For SROs, it may take active participation by parents or advocates to call attention to problem officers. In fact, I heard a very senior commander in a very large city ask “What is an SRO?” when asked about school policing during a recent public seminar. If management doesn’t know the role of a police officer in a school, it is difficult to know how that officer is performing.

Finally, we need to understand the training for new and continuing SROs. All cops need and receive training for personal safety, firearms, restraints and crowd control. Cops in schools need more than that: adolescent brain development, mental health conditions in children, the effects of trauma on behavior and much more. Fundamentally, SROs need to learn de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention and how to use their most effective tool — talking.

What can be done to improve or lessen the use of police in schools? State advisory groups can and should collaborate with law enforcement trainings and conferences to utilize the tremendous wealth of science, knowledge and experience around youth in the justice system. Law enforcement must be invited to educational forums and community conversations. Advocates for reform must carry current knowledge to schools and stationhouses. State advisory groups on juvenile justice can advocate against outsourcing school discipline and for data-driven approaches like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

I know conscientious, well-trained school officers who are key players in ending the school-to-prison pipeline, who practice restorative justice approaches to school conflict and who are leaders in decriminalizing adolescent behavior. SROs can be part of keeping all kids safer. We have to make sure they are doing that job with the right selection, temperament, training and supervision wherever there are cops in schools.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.

More related articles:

Children’s Rights Groups Against Giving School Cops Military Hardware

L.A. Judge Objects to School Police Getting Millions Reserved for Struggling Students

North Carolina Complaint Alleges Excessive Force by Police in Schools

OP-ED: UN Calls Out US on Police Violence, Criminalization of Youth of Color

Georgia at Work on Juvenile Justice Reforms for Next Year

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, co-chair of a special council on criminal justice reform says of juvenile policy: “We’re not at the point of drafting anything yet. We’re still assimilating and gathering data, system driver data.” Photo courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives

With technical assistance from the Pew Center on the States, a Georgia blue ribbon panel is studying the state’s juvenile criminal justice system, charged by the governor with recommending policy changes.

“We’re not at the point of drafting anything yet. We’re still assimilating and gathering data, system driver data,” said state Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, co-chair of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

The 21-member council of mainly judges and attorneys was renewed by Governor Nathan Deal earlier this year to study and recommend policy for both the adult and juvenile justice systems.

Boggs was speaking at the end of the latest in a series of juvenile justice presentations by the Pew Center on the States, this time focusing on recidivism.

Pew says its data suggests the best programs to fight recidivism find and focus on the most at-risk kids.

“When we talk about looking at what’s going to reduce likelihood of reoffending, we want to look at the things that are targeting the higher risk offenders for correctional intervention. That really is going to maximize our impact on recidivism reduction,” said Kristy Danford, project manager at the Crime and Justice Institute, Pew’s partner in the Georgia study.

Danford compared studying recidivism risk to studying heart attack risk. Someone with high cholesterol and a fatty diet is likelier to end up in the emergency room just as a youth with dodgy friends and a prior record is more likely to end up in a courtroom.

Yet data suggest an uneven approach to keeping kids from returning to state custody across Georgia’s courts and jurisdictions.

Not all jurisdictions are trying to diagnose recidivism risk in the same ways, nor is it clear how consistently decision-makers such as judges use their discretion.

“While there may be standards in place, the extent to which they’re adhered to is not known,” said Danford. Besides that, funding varies in different jurisdictions, so the menu of services varies too.

Youth in custody do not necessarily get treatment for their specific problems, like life skills or anger management, because the state’s detention centers do not necessarily all offer every service.

And in the state’s regional youth detention centers, kids of all risk levels mix. That is, kids who are generally at low risk of reoffending might meet up with new, dodgy friends.

Pew’s Jason Newman explained that they’re not making policy recommendations, only providing technical assistance. “We’re still looking at data to find challenges and opportunities,” he said.

Smaller work groups of committee members will study pieces of data and report their findings to the full council in the coming months. A full council report is expected by the end of the year. Any or all of its recommendations could be written into bills for the 2013 Georgia legislative session.

“I expect it would legislatively be a separate piece of legislation,” Boggs said. A massive juvenile justice code rewrite that’s been in the works for several years “will continue to proceed under its ordinary course. Only to the extent that we make policy recommendations that somehow impacted that would they consider amending that bill to include it,” he explained.

Georgia has drafted legislation in that way before. In 2011, a blue ribbon panel studied, then recommended wide tax changes. Legislators picked a few recommendations that made their way into bills in 2012 and later into state law.