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Growing Movement Toward Localizing Juvenile Justice

Not since the opening of the first juvenile reform school in 1886 has our nation’s approach to confining delinquent youth experienced such fundamental and widespread change. From California to New York, states are reducing juvenile placements, shuttering facilities and shifting money and kids to county control. If done thoughtfully, it’s a trend that holds much promise.

This national realignment movement took a huge step forward on Sept. 1, when New York state’s “Close to Home” law went into effect. When fully operational, the law will ensure that all but a handful of delinquent youth from our nation’s largest city are cared for locally in New York City, rather than in large, distant and debilitating state institutions.

The passage of Close to Home was the culmination of more than a decade of work. Between 2002 and 2011, the city reduced institutional placements of delinquent youth by 62 percent, while experiencing a 31 percent decline in major felony arrests of juveniles.

Under Close to Home, New York City is creating a continuum of high-quality, community-based programs and facilities. City youth who were formerly placed in “non-secure” state facilities are being transferred to 35 small facilities run by non-profits located near their home; the same will happen next fall for youth in “limited secure” placement. By freeing up funds that were tied to antiquated reform schools, Close to Home will allow the city to fund more and better community-based programs, which will in turn improve public safety and further reduce unnecessary confinement.

The initiative, which was shepherded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed with bi-partisan support, has many advantages over the traditional state-centralized, institution-based model. Instead of being sent to large institutions far away from home, which often requires families to travel hundreds of miles, parents and guardians will now be able to take the subway to see their child, facilitating family therapy and helping the young person transition back into the community. Instead of being confined in state institutions with unaccredited schools, youth will remain in the New York City school system, assuring that they get credit for their work and improving their chances of staying in school.

New York state isn’t alone in maintaining public safety by localizing juvenile justice and reducing institutionalization. California reduced the number of confined young people from more than 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 1,000 today. In California, 99 percent of adjudicated youth are now housed or supervised by counties, with county costs defrayed by $93.4 million in state funds last year alone.

A look at crime data from the California Department of Justice shows that these changes have not come at the expense of public safety. While the incarcerated state youth population in California declined by 84 percent from 1996 to 2008, the juvenile arrest rate declined by 32 percent. Meanwhile, as the adult prison population was increasing by 21 percent during that same time, the adult arrest rate declined by a more modest 15 percent.

In Michigan, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, had 731 youth confined in state facilities in 1998; last year it had four. When state and county officials agreed to realign care and funds from the state to the county, county officials contracted with five Care Management Organizations (CMOs), which are similar to HMOs. The CMOs receive a block grant for the youth in their catchment area, which incentivizes them to place youth in local, successful and cost-effective programs. Wayne County’s remarkable decrease in state commitments has been accompanied by a compliance rate that exceeds 90 percent while the young people are under care, and a felony reconviction rate of 18 percent for youth released from secure care two years after they return to the community.

In 1991, Ohio was home to four of the 20 most overcrowded juvenile facilities in the nation. In 1994 the state launched RECLAIM Ohio, which carefully incentivizes county innovation. Under the program, if counties safely reduce state juvenile placements in a given year, they earn more money the following year.

When RECLAIM was piloted in 1994, pilot counties quickly reduced state commitments (mostly for low-level felonies) by 42 percent, while commitments from the non-pilot counties actually increased. By 2011, the number of RECLAIM-funded programs initiated statewide topped 600, while the number of youth sent to state facilities dropped by 79 percent.

Since its inception, the training school model, which Mayor Bloomberg called a “relic of a bygone era,” has had disappointing results and been plagued by a never-ending cycle of scandalous abuses followed by cosmetic reforms. But, between 2001 and 2010, there was a 33 percent decline nationally in the number of youth in confinement, with declines in 43 states.  Through the increasing use of more effective risk assessment tools, evidence-informed programs, and creative fiscal incentives, local jurisdictions are creating a fundamentally more balanced approach to juvenile delinquency that may bring the juvenile justice system into modern times and end our reliance on the 19th century training school model.

Casey Foundation Effort Aims to Half Incarceration of Juveniles

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is commencing a new juvenile justice initiative aimed at reducing juvenile incarceration by 50 percent in 10 years, beginning with the release of a report that makes the case for such a drastic reduction.

“An avalanche of research has emerged over the past three decades about what works and doesn’t work in combating juvenile crime,” stated the report “No Place for Kids,” written by freelance reporter Richard Mendel for the Baltimore-based foundation. “We now have overwhelming evidence showing that wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a counterproductive public policy.”

Bart Lubow, Casey's director of programs for high-risk youth, said the foundation will begin work next year with a series of states where officials want to make policy shifts that will affect their reliance on youth correctional facilities.

“The report marks the launch of an extended period of work intended to limit youth incarceration and replace it with a dispositional system that will work better and  produce better results,” Lubow said in an interview with Youth Today.

The foundation will employ a strategy similar to the one it used for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which uses the development of a risk assessment to help states, counties and cities reduce their reliance on juvenile detention centers, where some youths are held before facing a judge.

As with JDAI, Lubow said, Casey will begin with intensive work in a handful of counties and, once functional models have been developed, provide technical assistance as statewide reform becomes possible.

Among the focal points of the project, he said, will be “changes that narrow the pipeline of cases coming into court, … improving community-based options,” and ensuring that “the right kids are in the right programs.”

A number of states, most notably California and Texas, have drastically reduced the number of juveniles confined in large state facilities in the past five years. Closure of some facilities has followed in both states, and neither experienced an uptick in juvenile arrests as they relied on less incarceration.

“That was done in the absence of genuine national consensus,” Lubow said. “Part of what we hope to do is give some coherence” to the push for less incarceration.

Today’s report pieces together established research to explain why some states should rethink the extent to which they use secure confinement. It focuses on five main points:

Safety: Fifty-seven lawsuits against juvenile justice systems in the U.S. have resulted in court-ordered action, and 52 included allegations of “systemic problems with violence, physical or sexual abuse by facility staff and/or the excessive use of isolation or restraint.” In 46 of the lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged an excessive reliance on isolation and restraints to control juvenile populations.

Effectiveness: Recidivism calculations vary from state to state. The report charts available recidivism figures from two dozen states, and some of the figures are dismal. A New York study of incarcerated boys found that 83 percent had been re-arrested for a felony offense within three years of release; three-year measures of returns to correctional custody in six states yielded recidivism rates between 16 percent and 62 percent.

Misuse: While the public and most lawmakers presume that incarceration is used for the most serious juvenile offenders, just 26 percent of the 150,000 juveniles placed in residential programs during 2007 committed a violent index offense.

Better, Cheaper Alternatives: Evidence-based programs such as Multisystemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy have emerged as more effective and less expensive alternatives for juveniles, the report stated. In Florida, a redirection initiative that sent nearly 3,000 juveniles to such programs instead of secure or residential confinement yielded $41.6 million in savings.

The average cost of incarcerating a youth is about $80,000 per year, according to an estimate by the American Correctional Association.

Lack of Services: Drawing mostly from responses to the Justice Department’s 2010 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, the report stated that most facilities fail to provide adequate education programs, mental health treatments and substance abuse interventions.

“You hear about all of this in different strands: the ineffectiveness of institutionalization and declining numbers in some states,” said Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of probation for New York City, who had read the report. “This report makes you see the sum of the parts, so it’s added value in that sense.”

The report recommends the priorities Lubow mentioned for Casey’s forthcoming initiative, specifically, limiting the universe of charges for which incarceration can be an option, and realigning the financial structure of juvenile justice systems such that more funding flows to community-based alternatives. The report also recommends that states with large prison-like secure buildings replace them with smaller ones designed for treatment.

Lubow said Casey has no intention of pushing a specific threshold of offenses for which incarceration is an option in any state.

“That’s not our role, nor do I think any [system] would put much stock in our opinion,” Lubow said. “What we are saying is: Right now, we have gone way to the extreme in terms of locking up low-risk and high-need cases.”

This story originally appeared in Youth Today.

Photo credit: Richard Ross