The Story of an Armed Robbery and a Second Chance, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part opinion piece written by Judge Teske. Part one appeared in this space Tuesday.

James and Matthew -- the boys who robbed Henry, a pizza deliveryman, at gun point -- stood in court telling him they were sorry as they wiped the tears from their eyes. With my permission, Henry walked to the bar, reached across and shook the boys’ hands, and said in a soft voice, "I forgive you." Henry also had tears. Despite his plea not to send them to prison, he has accepted their fate -- a fate pretty much accepted in custom and practice -- prison.

A transfer from adult court made the offense a designated felony in juvenile court, making them eligible to serve from one to five years in a youth development campus. These places have razor wire fences. Let’s not mince words: They are prisons.

Henry's plea for a second chance made me think about the impact of incarceration on youth in the United States and in Georgia.

Countless studies have shown that detention is ineffective at treating kids and reducing recidivism; in fact, a number of well-designed studies suggest that correctional placements actually exacerbate criminality. Why should we be surprised? Consider the following facts about our youth facilities across America.

According to a 2008 study, the United States detained children at a rate five times that of other Western nations, despite a violent crime rate only marginally higher than those nations. According to the FBI, only 12 percent of the nearly 150,000 delinquent youth placed in facilities were there because they committed violent crimes. Why do we let our anger get in the way of being smart? When are the adults going to grow up?

Since 1970, systemic violence, abuse and/or excessive use of isolation or restraint have been documented in juvenile facilities of 39 states. In at least 22 states, there is evidence of continued mistreatment since 2000.

Georgia, where my juvenile court is located, is no exception.  Investigations are currently unfolding at youth detention centers in the state. We are fortunate to have leadership responding in a transparent fashion -- to get to the truth -- no matter how horrible! This is how we reform juvenile justice in Georgia, or anywhere.

Not only are we mixing non-violent youth with the violent, many of them are documented with mental health disorders including learning and emotional behavior disorders.

One study revealed that the rate of detention was nearly three times that of the general population. Despite the exorbitant daily costs to house these kids, most facilities are ill-prepared to address the needs of many confined youth. It should be no surprise that 30 percent have attempted suicide, 70 percent have seen someone severely injured or killed, and 72 percent had something very bad or terrible happen to them.

In contrast, and the most compelling, is a  2009 analysis of 361 studies that determined that the strongest results are achieved by community programs employing therapeutic counseling, skill building and case management approaches which have worked to reduced recidivism by at least 12 percent.

So I did the unthinkable. I released James and Matthew, but to a program that made their home and school a prison. Inspired by Henry's words, I named it the Second Chance Program.

With the help of the Department of Juvenile Justice and our local System of Care, we quickly constructed an intensive program for high-risk designated felons. James, Matthew and all designated felons chosen for this program are placed under house arrest for up to six months with GPS monitoring. We know where they are at all times.

One of the keys to reducing recidivism is breaking up the delinquent network -- their anti-social peers. The cognitive shift needed for these boys to turn from a delinquent attitude demands a disconnect from delinquent influences.

Without this first step, all the good treatment and good programming is pretty much worthless. Despite today’s technology with GPS tracking, I am perplexed we still use detention -- a more expensive option -- as a default for community protection, especially given the fact that only about 12 percent are incarcerated for violent offenses.

The irony is that we say to ourselves it is needed to get them away from a "bad environment," but yet we send them to a facility full of delinquent kids, the best training school for delinquency.

They attend an evening reporting center each day after school, and over the next year they undergo intensive behavioral training that includes cognitive restructuring, substance abuse counseling, life skills training, job readiness, weekly drug tests and family functional therapy.

They come to court every Tuesday night to make a report and the parents must attend. They are, after all, the key. They too undergo parental counseling to develop skills to manage their child. The first Tuesday of every month they must dress in business attire. After six months they begin the phase down period. After one year, they are transferred to regular probation -- provided they have demonstrated a change in thinking and behavior.

James made it. Matthew did not.

Here's the kicker: If you get revoked, the sentence is five years. Matthew violated his house arrest. The community and the survival of the program require harsh responses to serious violations. These kids are not average probationers subject to traditional graduated sanctions.

James? Well, it’s been more than two years and he is about to graduate high school after having excelled in all classes, joined ROTC, enjoyed most sports and rescued a bus driver from an attack. Now he is set to enter the armed forces this summer.

I haven’t admitted another adult transfer since James and Matthew -- and may never again -- although the other judges have and they are doing very well.

Given what we know about the recidivism rates of kids sent to youth prisons across the country, 50 percent and higher re-offend within two years compared to 32 to 37 percent for similarly situated kids placed in community programs with evidence-based programming.

So far, the Second Chance Program has a 36 percent revocation rate. I said "revocation" not "recidivism." About a third of the revocations did not involve new offenses -- they involved violating house arrest -- public safety is foremost.

It’s still early to make claims of success, but the outcomes are promising. Kids once gangbanging and committing robberies and burglaries are now making honor roll, working, taking SAT tests and college prep classes, and not using drugs.

More promising is that over half of them would have returned from prison to commit a crime, and now it looks like they won't.

Through Her Eyes, Girls and Women in the Juvenile Justice System

It was like a giant switchboard, the kind you see in 30s and 40s movies, a bevy of operators plugging in a crisscross of wires, taking calls, making connections, a cacophony of chatter.

That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. The only difference was that the conversations filling the hall were about the same thing: girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.

We were there — teachers, social workers, lawyers, mentors, youth workers, college students and professors — for the Through Her Eyes conference sponsored by the Center for Human Development, a regional social services agency. This annual gathering, now in its seventh year, came about when a number of professionals expressed concern over the increased number of at-risk young females in “the system,” and the need for “best practices” to help this growing population. The Center for Human Development stepped up to address their concerns with the first Through Her Eyes conference in 2004.

This increase isn’t just a regional issue, however. It is a nationwide trend. According to the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice the number of women in prison has grown 832 percent in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416 percent during the same period.) Of this population African American girls and young women are the fastest growing group. The Department of Justice reports that black females are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than Hispanics and 4.5 times more likely than whites.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell what it’s like to be abandoned by your family, the child welfare system, your school and community, to be physically and sexually abused, to grow up in poverty and neglect, to have your life controlled by drugs, alcohol and sex.

The conference participants, though, had firsthand experience of what life was like behind the data. They had sat with these young women in emergency rooms and clinics, stood with them before the judge, listened with them as the school principal refused to give a girl one more chance. That day at the MassMutual Center they were there to share what they had seen Through Her Eyes and to learn other ways to help these vulnerable, much neglected and almost invisible young people.

As a teacher in an adult county prison, I taught high school English on the female unit several days a week. Tell people you teach locked-up girls and you can see all the images they’ve ever heard of or seen in B-grade women-in-prison movies flash across their faces: violent, tough, sadistic, sinister. I’m not sure people believe me when I tell them that none of those stereotypes really fit. Not that my students, some as young as 15, didn’t don one of those masks if they had to. After all, jail is jail and you have to survive. But in the brutal hierarchy of prejudice incarcerated girls and women are on the bottom rung. Society demonizes them as irredeemable while the prison system infantilizes and insults them. (The Warden—a white, middle-aged man — for the female unit where I taught  rationed toilet paper and tampons in order to save money.)

But when these girls came to school they were what they most wanted to be — teenagers living a “normal life.” It was a struggle since none had ever had a normal life. Not Heather who after her mother died of AIDS got hooked on crack at 12 years old and took to prostitution to support her habit. Nor Ayesha whose mother refused to name her, leaving the hospital to fill in her birth certificate, “No Name.” As Ayesha was handed down from foster home to group home to detention center she would give herself a different name. “That way I get to feel like a new person each time.” And certainly not Eppy, unless a normal life means being physically and sexually abused first by her brother, then by her uncle, and finally her boyfriend. Until in desperation and self-defense she stabbed the boyfriend with a screwdriver.

Each of us had stories like that to share during the conference. As the day wound down another image, a phrase really, came to my mind, “Only connect.” It was from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. “Only connect…and human love will be seen at its height.”

It was as old fashioned perhaps as that switchboard image, and maybe only an old English teacher like me would think of it. But for me it summed up the focus of the conference day and the purpose of the work so many professionals like us did across the country: to give the girls and young women lost in the juvenile justice system what we all want and need — a connection to a better life and a share of human love at its height.

County Police Called to Quell Riot at Georgia YDC

Razor wire fence borders the Metro Regional Youth Detention center in Atlanta, Ga. JJIE Staff, 2010. File photo.Operations have returned to normal at the DeKalb County Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC) after local law enforcement were called in to secure the facility following a riot this past Sunday. More than half of the 64 juvenile inmates were involved in the disturbance, according to a report by WSB’s Richard Belcher.

This is the second time in less than six months county law enforcement have been called on to regain control of the RYDC. In May, a DeKalb County SWAT unit was called in after what was called a “group disturbance” by then DJJ spokesperson Scheree Moore.

In 2011, at least two similar incidents occurred at Eastman RYDC near Macon, Ga. In February, outside law enforcement from two nearby counties were called in to help regain control and return the 60 inmates involved to their cells.

DJJ officials declined to comment, only saying that the investigation is ongoing, but Atlanta’s WSB TV was able to piece together a timeline of what happened in the facility on the afternoon of Oct. 2 through a combination of police reports and a 911 call from an official working at the time of the riot.

The most recent incident was the largest such disturbance reported to date, involving at least 34 of the 64 youth held at the facility, according to the 911 call.

Also in May, a murder suspect escaped from the DeKalb RYDC. The 16-year-old escapee was apprehended later the same week, but the circumstances surrounding the escape are still unclear.

Citing budgetary constraints the DJJ closed two RYDC facilities last spring, although neither of the closed facilities were near Eastman or DeKalb. Twenty RYDCs remain active throughout the state. In addition there are six long-term Youth Development Campuses in Georgia.



Lack of Data From States Hinders Implementation of Effective Juvenile Justice

John Last 1The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released a report this month that discusses juvenile transfers to adult court and the problem of gathering reliable information about this practice. The authors give a brief history of the practice of transferring youth, and an overview of the wide variety of laws and practices that states use when trying kids as adults. Several of their conclusions stand out.

The practice of transferring youth to criminal court through anything other than a case-by-case court order grew nationally from the mid-1980s until the mid 1990s. Laws allowing for judicial transfer have existed since nearly the beginning of the separation of juvenile and adult cases in the 19th century.  Before 1970, only two states, Florida and Georgia, had prosecutorial discretion. Automatic transfers were rare as well, and usually applied to capital cases. Only eight states had such laws before 1970. Now both types of transfer are common, and judicial review is used in far fewer cases. “Only 15 states now rely solely on traditional hearing-based, judicially controlled forms of transfer,” states the report. These are the only cases that are consistently and reliably reported, and for which a decent set of data exists.

Perhaps most important for policy makers and others interested in juvenile justice is the fact that no set of data exists that “tracks cases that bypass juvenile courts.” Cases that first go to juvenile court and are then transferred are reported to the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, and are thus easy to analyze. The problem is that this form of transfer has become the least common nationally. Most transfers come from statutory exclusion, prosecutorial exception and jurisdictional age laws. Technically, the application of jurisdictional age laws is not a transfer at all, since it classifies the person charged as an adult. According to the authors these laws may account for sending an additional 175,000 youth to criminal court.

Many of these laws were developed in response to a perceived rise in violent crime by juveniles starting in the mid ‘80S, and were passed in an effort to protect the public and deter crime in juveniles. Even though violent crime committed by youth peaked in the mid ‘90S, little has been done to change the transfer laws since 2000.

It is unclear whether or not the laws have worked. Most studies seem to indicate that transferring cases has little impact on deterrence. Opponents of trying kids as adults point to these studies, while those who support the laws continue to believe in their effectiveness. The real problem is there is no direct way to analyze the results of these legislative solutions. Without a good data set it is difficult to draw any objective conclusions. As the authors say, “The scarcity of information on cases involving youth prosecuted under exclusion and prosecutorial discretion laws presents a serious problem for those wishing to assess the workings, effectiveness, and overall impact of these laws.” Until something is done to address this issue the debate will be based on anecdote and partial information. These do not make a good basis for policy making.

Congress can address this issue by tying federal funding for state juvenile justice systems to mandatory reporting. This reporting should include the number of cases, types of crimes and statistical information about the offenders. With this information in hand the approaches to reducing juvenile crime can be examined and compared.

Is it necessary that states be mandated to do this? Of course the states will be quick to maintain their rights. This is clearly seen from their wildly divergent practices. The fact that the same person can legally be an adult in one state and a minor in another points out the arbitrary nature of legally classifying kids. How do we know what really works? Without the data, whether provided willingly or not, it is impossible to know. States certainly want the money the federal government gives them, so why aren’t they willing to cooperate in something that will benefit them and others?

There are as many strategies for dealing with juvenile offenders as there are states. Some of them are bound to be more effective than others. The gathering of solid data is something that should garner bipartisan support. Instead of pointing to how proud they are of getting tough on kids perhaps lawmakers can actually do some good.

The political expediency of “get tough” policies has given way to new concerns over limited budgets. The economic crisis has effected more change in the last few years than during the nearly 20 years of relative prosperity. This is a sad statement about our politicians, whatever their stripe.

Maybe now, with their backs against the wall, they will finally act based on the needs of the people instead of their own need to be reelected. One can hope.

Massachusetts Bill Targets Assaults within Juvenile Facilities

Massachusetts lawmakers are outraged following reports that the state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS) refuses to report assaults on staffers by juvenile offenders. A new bill before the Legislature could change all that, according to a report by the Boston Herald. The measure would require  DYS officials to report all assaults on staff members to prosecutors or state law enforcement in order to pursue charges.

State Rep. Thomas Golden (D), the author of the legislation, said DYS officials have even tried to convince staff members not to report violent assaults to police. A spokeswoman for the agency said they were not aware of any such instances.

Under the current law, it’s the responsibility of the individual staffer to pursue charges. Critics claim the present law places the reporting staffer in a precarious position, increasing the likelihood of an assault or retaliation.
Juvenile offenders who attack a staff member could face a range of consequences from being assigned an individual therapist to being relocated to a different facility, the Herald reports.

Read the full story from the Boston Herald.

Babysitter Murder Case to Stay in Juvenile Court

The 11 year old babysitter accused of killing a toddler in Sandy Springs will face charges in juvenile court, not adult court.  As expected, the Fulton County D.A.’s office made the only decision possible under Georgia Law.  The 11 year old is too young to be charged as an adult, despite public outrage over the death of 2 year old Zeyda White. The toddler somehow received a fatal blow to the head while in the care of the pre-teen babysitter last Saturday night.

The youngster appeared in juvenile court Wednesday for an initial hearing and remains in Metro’s Youth Detention Center.  In general, juvenile court cases move through the system much faster than cases in adult court.   As the case unfolds, it will be heard by a juvenile court judge, not a jury.  The child will be represented by a defense attorney.  If found guilty, the child may be sent to a secure detention center for up to five years, with possible 12-month extensions at the discretion of the judge and the Department of Juvenile Justice, until the age of 21.

Also reporting this story: