Juvenile Justice Bridges Right, Left

A conservative think tank in Texas and the ACLU may seem to have little in common. But they and other conservative, liberal and nonpartisan groups are working — successfully — on juvenile justice law changes that are putting minors firmly in juvenile court, out of incarceration with adults and in community-based rehabilitation.

“There’s a great opportunity for collaboration across the aisle on this issue,” said Marc Levin, senior policy advisor at Right on Crime.

The Right on Crime initiative started in 2010 inside Austin’s Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank.  Right on Crime evaluates adult and juvenile corrections reforms through a lens of effectiveness and cost savings and promotes its findings in other states.  For the last few years, as state revenues shrink and budgets must be slashed, the Texans’ money-saving ideas are catching more ears.

In 2010, TPPF’s largest donor was the Pew Charitable Trusts, to the tune of more than $350,000, according to tax records the IRS failed to redact before release. The conservatives of Koch Industries were also on the list, as was, further down at $15,000, the GEO Group, a private prison firm.

Texas data, Right on Crime says, makes a case for diversion or supervision programs for youth instead of incarceration, when appropriate. They also say it costs Texas $270 per day to incarcerate a juvenile, compared to $7 to $73 per day for diversion or supervision. Besides the money, in-community programs also keep youths from mingling with more serious offenders and perhaps, picking up the criminal trade.

In Colorado, Right on Crime, in partnership with Independence Institute, a fellow free-market think tank, have argued that minors are better served and have a better chance at rehabilitation if judges instead of prosecutors make the decision of adjudication in adult or juvenile court.  The Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, a nonpartisan group which aims to ensure effective counsel for all juvenile defendants, argued for such policy too. In part due to efforts by all three and others, a new Colorado law places new limits on “direct files” — automatically assigning certain juveniles to adult courts.

Ideas like in-community rehabilitation and defaulting minors into juvenile courts sound familiar to assuredly non-conservative groups.

“For the first time I think really in 40 years of tough-on-crime policymaking, there is a depoliticized space, a space that really is centered around pushing data-driven policies,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the ACLU. She called the policies more effective at protecting public safety, and more fair, rational and cost-effective.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work with conservative groups, including Right on Crime, in the adult criminal incarceration” context, said Gupta, and as Right on Crime does more work on juvenile justice, the two will cooperate there.

“We don’t always agree with them [liberals],” said Levin. “Sometimes our scopes are a little bit different. For example, we don’t generally deal much with conditions of confinement … or excessive use of force.”

Indeed, conservatives emphasize cost-effectiveness much more than the ACLU. But, said Gupta, the bottom line is a common goal: “I think it’s been very important to have the addition of Right on Crime into this work.”

Besides the data and policy research in Right on Crime’s arsenal, they also have sterling conservative credentials that shield lawmakers from accusations of being soft on crime.

Levin said that the “messaging” can be different among members of a juvenile justice coalition.  “We really emphasize holding offenders accountable … and we really emphasize restitution for victims and community service.”

For example, he mentioned a case of a juvenile who stole a television. The boy’s consequences were service restitution: to cut the victim’s lawn for some amount of time.

“Putting someone behind bars isn’t always necessarily the best way to hold them accountable,” Levin said.

“I think ultimately the bottom line in juvenile justice policy discussions is the evidence, what works,” Levin said. “Whether you’re a liberal policy maker or a conservative policy maker, you want less crime.”

What to do with the cost savings may split conservatives and liberals, Levin pointed out, adding that TPPF favors tax reductions.

Gupta hopes conservative lawmakers stick with the same data-driven policies on juvenile justice even after state revenues begin to rise.

Levin doesn’t see conservative states swinging back to a lock-em-up solution when the economy improves. There will be other fiscal pressures, he said, and conservatives will want to cut taxes.

Next year, Levin expects to work on Right on Crime proposals for different issues in several states. Kentucky, Levin said, over-incarcerates status offenders. And Wyoming inappropriately locks up juveniles with adults and keeps poor records, he said. Florida, he added, has some 1,000 excess juvenile beds that need to be terminated, but most are privatized and there are “a lot of people who are worried about their ox being gored.” But Right on Crime advocates a more “efficient” and streamlined system, and to close the facilities that are least effective, Levin said.


On Juvenile Detention, a Place Where the Right Meets the Left

John Last 1Today’s problems with an overcrowded and aging prison population are in part a direct result of efforts in the 1980s and ‘90s to “get tough” on crime. Several strategies were adopted across the United States that were intended to protect society and send a message to would-be criminals. Mandatory minimum sentences, increased penalties, removal of parole for certain crimes and life without parole were all part of the plan.

Juvenile criminals were also included in this crusade against crime. Many of the laws passed in relation to juvenile crime were based on the now discredited “super predator” theory put forth by John DiLulio of Princeton University and James Fox of Northeastern University. Their position was that these “super predators” were unlike juvenile criminals of the past. They were beyond rehabilitation and needed to be put away for the safety of society. A higher juvenile crime rate and press sensationalism of cases involving young people created the perfect environment for these ideas to flourish.

This theory was used by conservative politicians to push for laws that streamlined the process of transferring young offenders to adult court, sometimes by putting more power into the hands of prosecutors (by taking it from judges) and also by making whole classes of crimes automatically adult offenses.

Today, due mostly to the economic downturn of the last several years, states are facing the fiscal reality of these measures, both in adult and juvenile systems. When governments were flush with tax revenues the “lock ‘em up” position was easy to take. It spiraled further and further out of control as politicians competed to prove who was tougher on crime. Even if they doubted the positions of their party no politician who wanted to be reelected could afford to seem soft on this issue. Now, both conservatives and liberals are able to advocate for reform, both from an economic standpoint and from compassion.

A recent story in Bridge magazine highlights some of the changes of the past few years. Legislators and activists of all political stripes are supporting efforts to rewrite laws in a more reasonable fashion. Now, instead of “getting tough,” they are “getting smart.” A lot of these efforts are having an effect on juvenile laws as well.

According to the Bridge article the Michigan Department of Corrections spends $33,000 a year to house an inmate. The cost for keeping youths in their own homes, where they are monitored and participate in treatment, is about 3,600 a year. Figures like these help fiscally conservative politicians support change. In Ohio, where Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office, a law was passed that diverts first time non-violent juvenile offenders to community programs, creates alternatives to incarceration, and puts transfer authority back into the hands of juvenile court judges.

One conservative group that is leading the way in criminal justice reform is Right on Crime. This Texas-based organization supports reform based on conservative ideas of accountability from government agencies and a commitment to best practices to increase public safety and reduce costs. These go hand in hand with the concepts of community-based intervention and alternative sentencing programs that utilize families, schools, community members, faith based groups, and monitoring by juvenile probation and parole officers.

Their position on juvenile justice reform calls for flexible funding for localities to implement practices that work for them, evidence-based approaches, removing employment barriers after a juvenile is released, improving school disciple by fostering approaches such as peer courts and peer mediation, and reviewing the sentences of those convicted while minors to determine if they can be safely released.

The country has suffered greatly because of the economic problems of the last few years, but there is a silver lining. Finally society and its politicians are being forced to face the realities of the cost, in dollars and in human suffering, of the war on crime. Hard times have driven rhetoric from the debate, and we can get down to real reform based on facts instead of positions.

Right on Crime and the Conservative Focus on Juvenile Justice

For years, many people have considered juvenile justice reform a dyed-blue plank in the liberal platform. However, deep in the heart of the red state of Texas, one conservative organization has adopted the issue as a major policy concern heading into the 2012 election season.

“The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a free-market, state-based think tank,” said Marc A. Levin, Director of the organization’s Center for Effective Justice. The Austin-based organization [], originally founded in 1989, implemented a criminal justice emphasis in 2005.

In 2010, the organization began its Right On Crime campaign, which Levin considers “a national platform for reform.” Several prominent conservative politicians and analysts -- among them, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush and William J. Bennett -- have all signed onto the campaign’s statement of principles.

The motto displayed on the Right On Crime website reads “fighting crime, prioritizing victims, and protecting taxpayers,” a creed which Levin reiterated when he said the organization’s primary aspirations are to “promote public safety, and also to do so in a cost-effective manner.” He also said the organization promotes “a focus on rehabilitation of youth and adults,” who he believes can “be put on a path to be productive citizens and positive contributors to our society.”

“Obviously, there have been some conservatives who, historically, have taken a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ approach,” Levin said. “But crime has been declining in the United States for 17 years in a row.”

Levin said that his organization advocates evidence-based practices and discourages incarceration “when it is not necessary.”

“If you incarcerate someone, it’s almost guaranteed they won’t be paying restitutions,” he continued. “They won’t be paying child support, and they’re obviously not going to earn any income.”

“Incarceration is necessary in some cases,” Levin stated, “but a lot of times, it’s a child welfare issue.”

Jeanette Moll, a juvenile justice policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, added that “conservatives are making a case for reform. We’re really focused on reforming criminal justice, both on the adult side and the juvenile side, to ensure that it becomes the best system possible, so that it’s not only cost-efficient, but it’s producing effective outcomes.”

Levin, an attorney by trade, said that juvenile justice reform “starts with better school discipline policies.”

“In Texas, we had kids that were getting misdemeanor citations in school for chewing gum, and had to go to court,” he said. “It was getting out of control.”

Moll, a former legislative aide in the Wisconsin Legislature, said that juvenile incarceration is becoming an increasingly important issue as states face budgetary cutbacks.

“There’s a lot of systems aimed at incarcerating juveniles, or treating them, in ways that do not present good uses of tax payer dollars,” she said. “I think that it’s something that each state needs to consider for its own population, since every state has a unique population of individual offenders and different levels of funding.”

Since the Texas Legislature is not scheduled to convene until 2013, Right on Crime officials say the organization is looking to branch out into other states in the upcoming year.

“We’ve heard from a lot of our counterparts in other states, asking us to come over and help them do events, issue papers and do presentations for lawmakers on these correction issues,” Levin said.

Moll said that Right On Crime will be working with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation to raise awareness and interest in reforming juvenile justice policies within the state in 2012. “Georgia is a very interesting state,” she said, “because they’re currently looking at rewriting the juvenile code.”

Levin said that organization will also be looking at legislation in California, as well as examining several proposals in Washington, D.C.

Although Moll said the organization is in favor of juvenile justice reform, she still believes that there are instances in which juvenile incarceration is necessary.

“We’re in favor, for non-violent, first-time offenders, a certain category of juveniles, diversions from incarcerations, [such as] probation and access to treatment and other non-incarceration possibilities,” she said.

“Violent, serious and repeat offenders,” she continued, “do need to be incarcerated.”

Moll said that instead of being incarcerated, most juveniles arrested for drug -related offenses should be given the opportunity to partake of rehabilitative services.

“The most important thing there is realizing that some form of treatment is needed,“ she said. “The Texas Youth Commission does provide a substance abuse treatment program, so that’s encouraging information that even the juveniles that end up incarcerated will receive some form of treatment for their substance abuse issues.”

Moll said that Texas is a “fantastic example” of successful criminal justice reform, stating that since 2007, the number of juvenile lock-ups in the state have fallen by almost 60 percent. She said that community and evidence-based treatment are at the root of the state’s drop-off in juvenile incarceration figures.

A 2010 Texas Youth Commission report states that since 2007, the residential end-of-year population dropped from 4,800 inmates to 1,798 in three years time, with new commitments dropping from 2,738 to 1,481 during the same time frame.

“We have seen a big change in Texas,” Levin said. “Back in 2005 and 2006, there was something in the order of 5,000 youths in the Youth Commission, and now, we’re basically down to about 2,200 in lock-up. It’s very encouraging progress that’s been made, and there’s certainly more work to be done.”

Moll partially credits performance incentive funding for Texas’ reduction in juvenile incarceration numbers.

“The state sends grant funds to local county probation departments, who set up local treatment possibilities for juvenile offenders,“ she said.

Moll stated that the use of community-based treatment centers may lower the cost for Texas taxpayers from around $1,000 per day for incarcerated juveniles to just a little over $100.

Although such programs are implemented in only a few counties, she remains optimistic that community based treatment centers will become more and more common throughout the state. “We haven’t been able to compile comprehensive data, but the preliminary findings are very encouraging,” she said.

Levin also believes that there will be more of an emphasis on localized treatment in the upcoming years.

“I think you’re going to see a renewed focus on state and local efforts, which have been the bedrock of the juvenile justice system,“ he said. “It’s not really a federal issue, primarily.”

Due to cutbacks, however, he does believe that states are going to be pressured into “doing more with less” regarding their respective juvenile justice systems.

“And in order to do that,“ he said, “you are going to need a better picture of what the system is, what the programs are, what the results are and also which kind of youths are going into which program.”

Moll said that, throughout the decade, she sees juvenile justice reform becoming more of a convergent issue for conservatives and liberals.

“There’s always going to be attention to this issue from both parties, from both sides of the political spectrum,” she concluded.

“I think what has been different in the last few years is a new focus on evidence-based treatment, [as] in the past, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, there wasn’t so much concern about whether or not the treatments and the programs we were using for juvenile offenders actually worked,” she said.


Texas Under Rick Perry Makes Strides in Juvenile Justice Reform, say Advocates

Under Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ juvenile justice system has seen a dramatic transformation from a system plagued by a sexual abuse scandal to one of the most progressive systems in the nation, say long-time advocates in the state. Texas, one of the country’s most conservative states, succeeded in reforming the system by finding a common goal for both the left and the right, even if they took different paths to get there.

“In Texas,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, “we have been lucky to have a very conservative organization,” the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), “advocate for many of the same juvenile justice reforms that organizations like [progressive] Texas Appleseed advocate for.”

A combination of factors led to the bipartisan reforms in a rare confluence of fiscal conservatism and the more liberal focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

Just six years ago, the Texas Youth Council (TYC), which oversees the state’s youth detention facilities, was facing hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse and neglect by facility administrators, employees and correctional officers. Gov. Perry placed the TYC into a conservatorship just over a month after the first reports of abuse were published by The Texas Observer.

Soon, the Texas Legislature was closing detention facilities and moving funds for juvenile justice back to the local communities while focusing on rehabilitative programs. In the six years since the TYC was rocked by scandal, the number of juveniles in TYC custody has dropped from 5,000 to 1,400, according to The Houston Chronicle, all while the overall juvenile crime rate in Texas has fallen.

Texas is also facing a $27 billion shortfall for its biennial budget. This gap has forced lawmakers to make dramatic and difficult cuts across the budget. In the juvenile justice system that meant the closing of more youth detention facilities, placing more of the burden on local communities to find solutions most of which centered on rehabilitation.

Mark Levin is a director of the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF, the conservative think tank advocating strongly for juvenile justice reform in Texas. According to Fowler, Levin has been instrumental in “changing the way conservatives think about policy surrounding criminal justice and juvenile justice initiatives.”

“And it’s based on sound fiscal policy,” Fowler said.

However, she added, Levin and TPPF’s focus is on how policy impacts kids, but only to the extent that it makes communities safer. Levin is now taking his “reasoned approach” to juvenile justice with TPPF’s “Right on Crime” intiative.

In May, legislation was passed that would combine the TYC with the other half of the Texas juvenile justice system, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. The new combined agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Commission (TJJC) is tasked with maximizing community-based programs. Three more detention facilities will be closed as part of that legislation. The new program costs less per child and, because of it’s community focus, is better at rehabilitation. Once again, the right can claim a victory for fiscal responsibility but the left can justifiably claim a victory for rehabilitation.

“It got so much support because it makes so damn much sense," Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, told the Houston Chronicle.

With Gov. Perry recently announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, many are looking back at Perry’s 10-year record as governor. With the Texas juvenile justice system taking large strides how much credit should Gov. Perry be given?

Gov. Perry “was not an obstacle to juvenile justice reform,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a group advocating for reform across all areas of criminal justice.

“The proof of his commitment will be in is appointment to the board [of the TJJC],” Yanez-Correa said.

Fowler, of Texas Appleseed, said, “I think he’s made a big difference to the extent that he has allowed himself to be persuaded. That, to me, indicates that he is slightly pragmatic in his response to some policy initiatives and he can be persuaded to do something that is a little bit different than what Republicans were talking about 10 years ago.”

Texas’ juvenile justice system is getting national attention with Gov. Perry’s presidential run and Levin’s conservative “Right on Crime” program. Only time will tell if other states will follow suit and join the right and left in juvenile justice reform.

Mark Levin of Right on Crime Speaks About Juvenile Justice Reform

WASHINGTON — Mark Levin, a conservative activist for juvenile justice reform, is using a “tough and smart approach” to build coalitions between the Left and Right. Levin is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and his “Right on Crime” initiative brings the two sides together for an effective reform system. Listen in as he speaks with JJIE about juvenile justice reform at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Annual Spring Conference.

Mark Levin

Newt Gingrich Among Conservatives Backing NAACP Prison Reform Report


Former Georgia congressman turned Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is among a group of big name conservatives supporting a new NAACP study pushing for a major criminal justice system overhaul.

The former U.S. House speaker has joined other fellow conservatives in promoting the civil rights organization’s latest report, highlighting racial disparities in incarceration rates and the imbalance between prison funding and education spending around the country. Dubbed “Misplaced Priorities,” it asserts there is an inverse relationship between exploding prison budgets and massive cutbacks in public higher education funding.

“Over the past 20 years, nationwide spending on higher education increased by 21 percent, while corrections funding increased by 127 percent,” said Robert Rooks, director of NAACP Criminal Justice Programs. “Even during the recession, education budgets dropped while a majority of states have continued to increase the amount they spent on prisons. During that same time we’ve seen higher education costs in states being shifted to working families.”

Rooks said it is time for a major paradigm shift in regards to the nation’s criminal justice practices. “The same political and social force that we used to increase the prison population is the same that we need now to better our educational system,” he said. Gingrich and fellow conservative colleagues, including former President George Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and Mike Jiminez of the executive committee of Corrections USA, a national organization that represents corrections officers, have rallied behind the report. The NAACP contends that costly incarceration rates have not significantly improved public safety and to some degree have compromised it. Among proponents the overarching sentiment is that it is time to explore more cost-effective alternatives, particularly for non-violent offenders.

“If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich wrote in a statement read during a Washington D.C. news conference led by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous earlier this month. “Conservatives, such as myself, should not consider criminal justice reform off-limits and I am pleased that our movement has begun to tackle these issues head-on.”

Pat Nolan, vice president of the Landsdowne, Virginia-based conservative non-profit, Prison Fellowship, agreed with his colleague. They are both part of the burgeoning Right On Crime movement that also includes former U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Ed Meese. Nolan, a former Republican leader of the California Assembly, had previously spent years in a federal prison for racketeering.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re going to spend $68 billion on corrections costs in this country this year; that’s 300 percent more than we did 25 years ago and the public isn’t any safer,’’ said Prison Fellowship Spokeswoman Kimberly N. Alleyne. “We’re focused on it from the spending standpoint. It’s the second fastest growing expense; second only to Medicare. It’s time to stop talking about being tougher on crime and instead get smarter on crime.” continue >>