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

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

WASHINGTON — A large majority of Americans say the juvenile justice system must place more emphasis on rehabilitating youthful offenders and focus far less on punishment and prison, according to a survey released today.

The poll of 1,001 adults showed agreement across racial and political lines, with all demographics saying kids who commit crimes deserve a second chance, and that society is better off helping the teens than tossing them into prison. Sponsored by the nonprofit Youth First Initiative, the survey results were not markedly different from the group’s 2016 poll, but did show participants continue to want more aggressive rehabilitative efforts.

“I think the poll shows policymakers that they should be doing this,” said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the initiative. “Young people should be given opportunities, not punishment. You can hold people accountable without incarceration.”

The results are just the latest proof that Americans want to see a different approach, she said.

“For too long too many states have pursued a tough on crime strategy that falls back on past prejudices and assumptions and doesn’t take into account the large body of research identifying evidence-based practices that work,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, co-chair of the House Crime Prevention and Youth Development Caucus. “More and more states and cities are now moving towards intervention-prevention mechanisms that keep our kids from getting in trouble in the first place, and focus on rehabilitation."

Roughly 80 percent of participants favored education and preventative measures over a punitive approach when asked a series of questions about youth offenders and the impact on society. The number of respondents saying families should be involved in designing treatment and rehabilitation plans for juveniles charged with crimes reached 90 percent, slightly higher than last year’s survey.

For more information about Evidence-Based Practices, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Evidence-Based Practices

Ryan said she was encouraged by poll results that show support for rehabilitation was virtually equal in every region of the country. White people without a college degree — a sturdy base of support for President Donald Trump — had the same opinions on reform as minority respondents to the survey.

Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said that isn’t a surprise.

“I think there are a couple reasons for it, and the main one is that people really do believe children are different than adults and deserve a second chance,” she said. “The other is you’ve seen a 50 percent drop in youth incarceration over the past decade, and at the same time you are seeing less arrests of juveniles.

“I think the general public understands that locking up kids leads to more crime, not less,” she said. “If you treat people with dignity and provide services you can actually help reduce crime.”

The numbers in favor of more progressive approaches to youth incarceration become slightly lower when the subject turns to financial benefits of rehabilitation vs. incarceration, and on whether less punitive measures work as well as harsher methods.

For example, while 94 percent of participants agreed that the most important job of the juvenile justice system is to make sure teens get back on track and never commit new crimes, not all agreed on the best way to make that happen. Only 69 percent of respondents said that making sure teens take responsibility for their actions can be done without some time behind bars.

About one-quarter of the participants said counseling and education aren’t enough to keep youth offenders from committing new crimes. Still, nearly 90 percent said states should have financial incentives to keep offering preventive programs and counseling.

The survey results, and the slight uptick in support for progressive measures from a year earlier, continue a trend away from incarcerating youth. Ninety-four percent said the justice system’s most important job is making sure youth get their lives “back on track” and refrain from future crime.

Congress tilted toward that approach last year, although not without some resistance. A bipartisan reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act would have, among other things, blocked judges from jailing  juveniles for violating court orders if the underlying offense — such as truancy or underage tobacco use — was only a crime when committed by juveniles.

It sailed through the House and had the support of Senate leaders, only to be blocked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Cotton had insisted that local judges should be able to incarcerate youth at their own discretion if court orders are violated.

“I think Tom Cotton’s behavior is bad behavior. We’ve made a lot of progress in the past two years, but now we have to start all over with a new Congress,” Mistrett said. “We had great leadership from Sen. Chuck Grassley [R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee], and we are going to keep working with them.”

This story has been updated.

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Poll Shows Americans Support Rehabilitation Focus for Juvenile Justice Systems

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Custody rates are calculated per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 through the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction in each state. Map shows breakdowns of incarcerated youth by race, ethnicity and gender as compared to the general youth population in that state. The lightest blue represents a ratio of 1:1 or less; the darkest blue represents 1:10 or more.


WASHINGTON — More than half of Americans support closing youth prisons and redirecting the savings to community-based programs, data that gives momentum to efforts to close facilities around the country, advocates say.

The Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to close youth prisons, released today polling data that delves into Americans’ attitudes about incarceration, punishment and rehabilitation.

“We’re very encouraged by the results and we think this matches with the political will we’re seeing,” said Liz Ryan, CEO of Youth First.

A bipartisan group of governors — from Connecticut, Illinois and Virginia — have recently said they would like to close some of their states’ largest and oldest prisons.

hub_arrow_2-01Youth First supports state-based advocates who are pushing to close youth prisons and overhaul juvenile justice systems. The group aims to work with partners in 15 states during the next five years to cut youth incarceration by 50 percent.

“It’s a tough issue and state advocates are going right at it. We’re really encouraged and we want to support them any way possible,” Ryan said.

Youth First also released a data visualization tool that maps the nation’s 80 oldest and largest youth prisons, along with data on racial and ethnic disparities.

Ryan said it’s critical that reforms narrow the gaps in incarceration rates among racial groups, as well as bringing down overall numbers.

white boys to all2

Polling data

The poll showed that 92 percent of Americans think the top priority of the juvenile system should be to help young offenders get back on track and be less likely to commit another offense.

Very large majorities supported efforts to include juveniles’ families when designing treatment and rehabilitation plans and to provide financial incentives to states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to incarceration — at 89 percent and 83 percent, respectively.

The poll also found broad support for requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and increase funding to hire more public defenders for youth — at 70 percent and 69 percent, respectively.

[Related: Restorative Justice Can Help Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, NY Panel Says]

Support for closing youth prisons and redirecting savings to community-based programs came in at 54 percent. While lower than support for many of the other proposals, Ryan said the finding is encouraging, particularly because the question specifically referenced alternatives for youth who pose a serious threat to public safety.

She said that indicates support for youth who have committed serious offenses, not only youth who commit status offenses such as running away or breaking curfew, or low-level crimes.

The poll was conducted in January 2016 by GBA Strategies and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.


State campaigns

The Youth First Initiative is already working with campaigns in Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In Virginia, the RISE for Youth campaign is working to close the two remaining youth prisons in the state and redirect the money to community-based alternatives to incarceration.

The campaign has focused on making sure youth and families who have experienced the system are part of the conversation about how to reform it.

Personal experiences can help make the issue real for stakeholders who don’t understand the day-to-day life of juveniles, said Da'Quon Beaver, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center who was incarcerated in the past. The center is part of the RISE campaign.

“I’ve seen first-hand what goes on in these facilities — the good and the bad. I know what worked for me and what didn’t and what worked for other youth,” he said.

More related articles:

The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

Benjamin Chambers: Evidence-Based Practices for Children Exposed to Violence: A Selection from Federal Databases – and More

An Open Letter to Our Next President

Miracle at State Correctional Institution Forest

Cindy SanfordJuan (name changed), convicted of aggravated assault at 21, has been in solitary for five years. He has seen and experienced it all: brutal cell extractions, hunger strikes, flooded pods and endless hours spent screaming at his cell door.

By the time I met him, he'd racked up over 80 misconducts in numerous prisons and earned the enmity of most of the officers forced to deal with him. Hardly your model inmate.

Yet from our very first visit, I was struck by the humility and sadness in his eyes. Somehow, despite his “bad-boy” reputation, I sensed there was more to him, something worth saving.

Unfortunately, that was not an opinion shared by the officers at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill. While corrections officers now receive some mental health training, most still have a mind-set geared toward control and punishment, not mental health care. So it was probably inevitable, given Juan's conduct, that he would have a rough road in prison and numerous conflicts with staff.

But I am a registered nurse, not a corrections officer. My training never presumed that harsh punishment was the best cure for behavior disorders. A few months after I met Juan, he sent me his medical records, which were a depressing read to say the least.

Addicted to crack at birth, a victim of severe child abuse and neglect, four suicide attempts as a teen, multiple mental health hospitalizations and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. If that weren't enough strikes against him, an MRI of his head revealed mild brain damage, presumed to be the result of a beating by his parents. In my view, this was a kid who never had a chance.

“Do you have any contacts or support on the outside?” I asked during that first visit.

Juan looked down but not before his eyes clouded over. “No.”

“Not even a friend — or some other relative?”

“No. There's nobody,” he said quietly.

I smiled reassuringly, hoping it conveyed the right amount of support without leaving the impression I felt sorry for him. But it was hard not to. Far too many young people, seriously abused and neglected as kids, end up right where he is.

Some enforcement types refer to people like me as “hug a thugs.” I know how they think because I used to be one of them. My grandfather was a New York City police officer. My husband is a retired wildlife conservation officer.

I come from a long line of ultraconservative Republicans with little sympathy for prisoners. I proudly considered myself an advocate for victims, morally superior to the “bleeding hearts” who predictably line up in defense of misfits and felons.

But what I had failed to realize is that in some cases, those who commit crimes were horribly victimized too. I shuddered recalling what I'd read in his record — how his mother smeared feces in his face to punish him. Who wouldn't be affected by something like that?

Over the next few months Juan began to let down his guard with me. Even though he continued to be a problem for some of the officers, I was convinced his misbehavior was the result of hopelessness and despair. One day he confided something that took my breath away: “My biggest fear,” he wrote, “is that I will die someday never being loved — by anyone.”

Right then I knew the isolation and harsh punishment he received in the Special Management Unit, designed for problematic inmates without mental illnesses, would never save him or turn him around. Juan needed to know that someone valued and believed in him, so he could learn to believe in himself. But prisons don't operate under the principles of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Clearly I had my work cut out for me.

As I continued to visit Juan, I was increasingly able to see glimpses of his true character, and the person he wanted to be. He often berated himself over his conduct, and wished he were better at controlling his behavior and moods. “I hate being like this,” he said. “I worry God has given up on me.”

[Related: Stop Solitary for Kids: A National Campaign for Change]

With some encouragement, however, he began to set goals and asked me to assign him homework or essays on how to control his anger. But to my surprise, when I wanted to order some books for him, he urged me to wait. “Please don't get me anything until I prove myself to you,” he wrote. “If I don't get any misconducts this month, then maybe you can get me a book.”

Those were the kind of communications that assured me Juan was not irretrievably lost, despite his protracted reputation for misbehavior. He yearned to improve, to give someone a reason to be proud of him. While I understood the need to segregate him given his unpredictable behavior, he responded well to positive reinforcement and short-range goals and incentives.

Regrettably, he would never receive that in the Special Management Unit. I wrote a few polite letters to prison administrators, expressing my concern about his placement there.

Unfortunately, those concerns were not well received. I was told he did not have a mental illness, despite the fact that his medical records clearly stated otherwise. That response and Juan's continued difficulties concerned me enough to continue to visit and advocate for him, but it was to no avail. My visiting privileges were terminated and a month later, Juan was shipped to another prison, more than a hundred miles away.

At that point, things looked pretty bleak for Juan and his behavior deteriorated even further. But a miracle loomed on the horizon, thanks to some unusually progressive prison staff.

“I went crazy when they wouldn't let me see you anymore,” Juan said, after I was able to visit him at his new prison. “When they took away the little support I had, I lost all hope.”

But a year after his transfer, my husband and I were invited to SCI Forest, where we were greeted warmly by staff. The superintendent had just approved a special four-hour contact visit with Juan as a reward for months of good behavior.

“I didn't want to tell you until I was absolutely sure,” Juan gushed, a few weeks before our scheduled visit. “But I am so happy! I love these officers and I love the superintendent! He is a great man! And I have a job now too. I am a block worker and I do the very best job I can. I want to honor these people for the chance they gave me. I can't say enough about them!

And indeed he can't. Juan sings their praises in almost every letter I get from him. Whereas in other prisons he busied himself writing grievances, now Juan delights in writing thank you notes to the superintendent and his staff, and the walls of his cell are plastered with their encouraging replies.

How was this young man, once one of the worst-behaved inmates in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, able to make such a dramatic improvement? Much of the credit for that must go to the staff at Forest, who recognized the desire Juan had to improve and how to best help him achieve it.

Instead of viewing my involvement as a hindrance, they recognized that his hunger for loving human bonds could be beneficial in molding his behavior and bringing him to stability. But most of all, they demonstrated true compassion; a vital element too often missing in the process of rehabilitating young men like Juan.

Later, as my husband and I walked into the visiting room, Juan rushed toward us, wrapping us in hugs, reluctant to let go. Hardly surprising. It was the first warm, human embrace he'd received in eight long years.

“Thank you so much,” he said tearfully. “I promise you that I will keep doing my best. I want to honor everyone for what they have done for me. This is the best Christmas I ever had in my life.”

I thought about the bond Juan and I had developed, the awful abuse he'd endured as a child, and the desperate futility I felt when I was prevented from giving Juan what he needed most to heal — until now.

“Mine too,” I said.

Cindy Sanford is the author of “Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’” She is a registered nurse and a prison volunteer. She is married to a retired law enforcement officer and is the mother of four sons.

More related articles:

New Campaign Seeks to Sharply Reduce Youth Incarceration

Connecticut Concerns about Youth Incarceration Mirror National Debate

Movement to Restore Youth Begins by Ending Punitive Incarceration Model

Americans Believe in Treatment Over Incarceration for Youth, New Poll Finds

Photo by publik15 |

A majority of Americans favor rehabilitation and treatment of youth over incarceration, new national poll found. The survey, commissioned by the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), also found most Americans, 76 percent, believe youth should not automatically be sent to adult court. The poll was given to 1,000 U.S. adults.

"This public opinion research demonstrates Americans’ strong support for rehabilitation and treatment for court-involved youth, over incarceration and automatic prosecution in adult criminal court," stated CFYJ’s President and CEO Liz Ryan in a press release. "In light of this research, it is urgent that state officials accelerate youth justice reforms to reduce the incarceration of youth and prosecution in adult criminal court, and that Congress and the Administration reject deep cuts to juvenile justice funding."

Other highlights from the poll include:

  • A large majority of the public, 89 percent, would prefer youth to receive treatment, counseling and education.
  • Family is an important component in the juvenile justice system. Eighty-six percent of Americans favor involving the youth’s family in treatment while ensuring youth remains connected to their families.
  • Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe children should not be placed in adult prisons and jails.
  • Many Americans, 71 percent, favor providing more funds to public defenders to represent youth in court.
  • Eighty-one percent of Americans trust judges over prosecutors when determining if a child should be tried as an adult.

The full report can be read here. The survey also found that most Americans favor creating an independent community commission to ensure youth are protected by abuse. Further, 66 percent believe the juvenile justice system should reduce “ethnic and racial disparities in the system.

Disney, Take Beyond Scared Straight Aff the Air

Leonard Witt
Leonard Witt

An Open Letter to

Robert A. Iger, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company

Dear Mr. Iger:

I know Disney is a large company and you, like Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, can’t oversee everything. So I want to let you know about one of your company’s investments -- Disney’s one-third equity stake in the A&E Television Networks. Since it is not fully under Disney’s control, maybe that’s why you haven’t been watching A&E’s "Beyond Scared Straight." Certainly if you had, you would have intervened and pulled it off the air, but alas last week marked the beginning of its second season.

I am calling your attention to "Beyond Scared Straight" because it doesn’t at all fit the core principles of the Disney Corporation. I am sure you have read those core principles, maybe you even helped write them because they are front and center on your website.

Here, I will reprint them as a reminder:

Three core principles help guide our daily decisions and actions:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions
  • Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors
  • Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

Let’s take them one at time:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions

scared_straight_seriesThe evidence is in, the Scared Straight program where kids are sent into prisons to be scared straight, does not work. Experts  writing for and at other reputable publications have made it very clear that volumes of research have shown the Scared Straight approach does not work. Here is what Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Georgia Governor's Office For Children and Families, recently wrote: “The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.”

Of course, you are free to argue with Mr. Vignati and the scores of researchers, but if by chance, you might believe in empirical evidence, then you might ask yourself and the folks at A&E if all of you have acted in an ethical manner and considered the consequences of your decision to subject these kids to the public humiliation they receive on the show.

That brings us the second of Disney’s core principles:

  •   Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors

Does that principle include having several hulking adults surround individual teenagers and scream at them until the teens break down into tears? Does championing their well being include dressing them up in prison stripes and have then duck walk across the prison floor in front of your two million-plus viewers who watched the show last week? Does it include threatening to toss one of the teens into a cell with a prisoner who eyes the boy up and down and smiles big -- or coupling him with a big ugly guy who wants to make him his girlfriend with the complicity of the guards? You know what Mr. Iger, I found it down right disgusting and I do believe it tarnishes your image and Walt Disney’s legacy that has been put in your trust.

The final Disney core principle:

  •  Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

If you think screaming at kids until it gets your stomach churning is inspiration to make a lasting change, then sir, you and Disney have a problem.

Enough, please do me a favor, watch the program, then call your equity partners at the Hearst Corporation and NBCUniversal and pull this show off the air now. Then apologize to everyone who really cares about kids and then invest some real money in the kids who have been in the program and get them the help they need to lead productive lives.

Youth Courts 101: A How-to Video Primer and Manual

Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City gives an excellent overview of how youth courts work in this video interview with Leonard Witt of the They are completely teen driven with teens as judges, attorneys and juries who hear actual cases either referred by the police or the courts. Each teen judge, attorney or juror gets 30-hours of training and has to pass a "bar exam" to be able to serve.

In the youth courts Berman's center helps oversee, the kids running the courts come from a variety of backgrounds, so the offenders are being judged by their real peers. In fact, kids who once came before the court often come back later to serve as judges, attorneys and jurors, so Berman says it can be “a life changing experience.”

Kids sent to the court have already admitted guilt and are at the mercy of their peers to design the sanctions that will be administered.

The kids ask great questions, Berman says, and have “great BS detectors.” They listen to the individual cases and then the jury delivers a sanction that, according to Berman, tends to emphasize restoration.

The outcome might be a letter of apology, public service work or links to anger management. It turns peer pressure on its head, he says, making it a positive rather than a negative and that is the nub of the youth court idea.

Watch the video below for more details. You can download the manual on Recommended Practices for Youth Courts published by the Center for Court Innovation.

Fighting Gang Violence with Research and Empirical Evidence

ORLANDO, Fla, - Frontline practitioners working on gang prevention, intervention and suppression are gathered this week for the National Gang Symposium in Orlando, Fla. For prevention, think of the Boys & Girls Club. For intervention, think of the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, whose motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” And for suppression, well, of course, think of the police.

The number crunchers from the National Gang Center, using their own just released data, are telling symposium attendees today that gangs remain a substantial problem in the nation. However, gang levels are lower than the peak levels in the mid-1990s, and law enforcement agencies reported gang activity in their jurisdictions at about the same levels for five straight years – all this during a time when overall violence is way down.

Read the full fact sheet here.

Arlen Egley, one of those National Gang Center number crunchers, is learning something in return from the police at the symposium. A common theme among law enforcement is, “We can’t arrest our way of this problem." And Egley added, “It is reassuring to hear that.”

The symposium’s clarion call is that total collaboration among prevention, intervention and suppression folks will make a difference. James “Buddy” Howell, also from the National Gang Center, said that to reduce gang activity the community at large will have to be better organized than the gangs themselves.

Arlen Egley

Luis J. Rodriquez, speaker, author, and former Los Angeles gang member, said gang members call it “La Vida Loca" (the crazy life) because even they know it as a crazy existence. The brains of gang members in their teens and early 20s are not fully developed, he noted, and still can be molded for good or bad.

“Unfortunately,” Rodriquez said, “that’s the time we want to put them away.” Thus prison life often determines who they will become.

Sticking with the dominant symposium theme of full community support, Rodriquez provided five prescriptions for helping kids break away from the crazy web of gang life: Provide help and community; aid them in making spiritual connections beyond gang loyalty; give them a cause bigger than themselves, which might simply be how to be a good mother or father; find the art within which could be the creative arts or the art of teaching or being a mechanic; and finally, they have to learn to run their own lives because “taking full responsibility is a powerful, liberating thing.”

Finn-Aage Esbensen, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the story of a European saying Europe doesn’t have gangs like we do in the United States, and the U.S. researcher responded, “neither do we.” He meant traditional, long standing, gangs like the Crips and the Bloods are mostly confined a few large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most gangs in smaller towns come and go and often kids are in and out within a year. Plus, a Korean gang is different from a motorcycle gang and a Chinese gang is different from Hispanic gang, and so on.

James (Buddy) Howell

The cops, social workers, youth workers and probation officers on the panels used the terms research, data, empirical evidence, goals and measurable outcomes so often that the conference had the ring of academia. Indeed, Kelly McMillan, assistant chief of police in Salinas, Calif., said his department has tapped the Naval Postgraduate School in nearby Monterey to learn — via evidence-based research, of course — what lessons from fighting insurgents in places like Afghanistan can be applied to their local gang problem.

Of course, much of that evidence-based talk is driven by funders who want measurable outcomes, and everyone needs more funds. A woman next to this reporter at lunch just heard that six people at her intervention nonprofit just got laid off.

Hector Verdugo, associate executive director of Homeboy Industries, said, “Our biggest problem is the funding.” The lack of funding has produced a three-month waiting list among the 8,000 gang members who come to Homeboy Industries annually to build a new life. That number Verdugo says is 8,000 out of the estimated 80,000 gang members in Los Angeles County.

Speaking like the long-time gang researchers they are, Howell and Egley say that if you do proper assessments of the gang problems, know the amount of involvement and their threats, then you can put your limited funds where they can have the best effect. If you want to learn how to get there, you might want to read Howell's paper entitled: Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs.

One Man’s Journey Through Crime, Drugs, Schizophrenia and Rehabilitation

When Andrew Peterman of Idaho first came into the juvenile justice system at age 15, he did not know that schizophrenia was driving his anger, which in turn was resulting in arrests and illicit drug and alcohol usage. In time, thanks to juvenile detention and treatment for his schizophrenia he has been able to straighten out his life.

In fact, he has come so far on his journey that the Coalition for Juvenile Justice awarded him the 2011 National CJJ Spirit of Youth Award to "recognize and celebrate a young adult...who has made great strides through involvement with the juvenile justice system, overcome personal obstacles and is today making significant contributions to society." In the video below by Leonard Witt, Peterman tells of his journey through crime, drugs, schizophrenia and rehabilitation. See the video time splits below.


  • Introduction, Spirit of Youth Award: 00:00
  • Trouble begins at age 15, no coping skills 00:50
  • At 17 tried as an adult 01:20
  • Three felonies, classified as "persistent violator" 01:50
  • Avoiding automatic five extra years of incarceration 02:23
  • Diagnosed with schizophrenia, treatment helped 02:35
  • Relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse, quit taking medication 02:50
  • Decides against evil methamphetamine world and turns to God 03:28
  • Used coping skills learned in juvenile detention 03:55
  • Now attends college, will finish in August 2011 04:06

Watch for Andrew Peterman's essay on how juvenile detention is more demanding than adult prison later in the week at

Hornberger Advice: Juvenile Offenders Need Alternatives to Prisons

HornbergNancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), says research shows that it is important to "keep the kids out of heavy duty lockup as much as possible." In this video interview conducted by Leonard Witt, she says "Reclaim Ohio" is a project that saves money and has better outcomes than the bars and chains approach.

See subheads and time split guide below the video.

Time splits to help guide you through the video:

  • Introduction 00:00
  • Conference theme: Developing sentencing alternatives to harsh punishment 00:30
  • Research shows that normal settings for sentences work best 01:20
  • Settings built on relationships is better than bars and chains 02:10
  • Reclaim Ohio is best practice example; cuts lockups and saves money 3:04