Report: Youth Lack Access to Quality Defense Attorneys


WASHINGTON — Better data collection, improved efforts to attract juvenile defenders and well-funded, well-organized defense systems are among the ways to ensure youth charged with an offense have a lawyer by their side when they enter a courtroom, a new report says.

The National Juvenile Defender Center released an analysis that details how the group believes federal, state and local officials, as well as law schools and others, could help ensure more juveniles have access to legal counsel.

The recommendations include appointing counsel for all juveniles without requiring a finding of indigence, requiring a juvenile to meet with an attorney before waiving their right to counsel and implementing new training standards for juvenile defenders.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub | Juvenile Indigent Defense

The report also highlights why the current system isn’t working, including lack of funding, an insufficient number of attorneys who understand adolescents and a complicated judicial process that means juveniles often waive their right to counsel before ever speaking with an attorney.

“Children are arrested for what is mostly normal youth conduct and can be separated from their families and incarcerated without even the most rudimentary attempts to protect their rights,” said Mary Ann Scali, the acting executive director of NJDC, in a news release. “Our most vulnerable defendants are the least likely to have an effective attorney in our courtrooms.”

The report released Monday comes in the midst of the organization’s yearlong campaign “Gault at 50,” which seeks to improve access to quality legal counsel for juveniles in the leadup to the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1967 In re Gault decision. The ruling said young people in juvenile court have many of the same rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to counsel.

A 2003 survey by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer.

The report focuses not just on the legal right to counsel but on the recent changes to juvenile justice that are built on the idea that the system must recognize the developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

Adequate juvenile defense is part of building that developmentally responsive system, the report said.

“Research indicates because of normal developmental changes — social, emotional, physical, and neurological — when faced with the same circumstances, adolescents respond differently than adults," said Antoinette Kavanaugh, a Chicago-based board-certified forensic clinical psychologist, in a news release. "As a result, adolescents need lawyers from the point of arrest until they are released from the legal system to help them successfully navigate and make legal decisions.”

Kids in the Presidential Campaigns: How the Front-runners Stack Up on Children’s Issues

Group of boys

James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, sent a letter Wednesday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz imploring the moderators to place more emphasis on kids in their questions during the next presidential debate this Sunday. Steyer wrote that kids were hardly mentioned in the debates thus far, and said candidates should be more sensitive when speaking on issues like racism and sexism, because children are tuning in to the events.

In the first presidential and vice presidential debates, little was said about what the campaigns will do for children, adolescents and young adults. The word child was only uttered twice. Both candidates briefly agreed that affordable child care is an important issue, which they would confront differently if elected.

“As far as child care is concerned and so many other things, I think Hillary [Clinton] and I agree on that,” Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate. “We probably disagree a little bit as to numbers and amounts and what we're going to do, but perhaps we'll be talking about that later.”

In the vice presidential debate, the only topics concerning young people centered on abortion rights and the 100,000 kids in danger in war-torn Aleppo.

“The kids are watching — and it is important for our candidates to think about that every time they speak,” Steyer stated in the letter. “On October 9, let's talk about real issues that impact families and our kids. Not only that, let's force candidates to be respectful — not just toward each other but to the issues they are discussing, from immigration to foreign policy.”

He asked the debate moderators for three things:

  • Invite kids to watch the debate in person;
  • Begin the debate with a statement that kids and families are watching and the candidates should respect that and interrupt candidates if they make inappropriate remarks;
  • Ask the candidates questions about what message they intend to send the children who are watching the debate.

The absence of children’s issues in the debates could be because people typically don’t base their votes on youth policy, said Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at the McCourt School of Public Policy in Georgetown University. “It doesn’t surprise me that the issue has not come up in the debates. Generally, what we know from research that’s been done is that while people in this country value very highly the well-being of our children, it generally is not an issue they vote on directly.”

The campaigns

Though Clinton hasn’t spoken about these topics in the debates, Bilchik said, her campaign has focused on children’s issues in many ways, such as on her website and during her speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Trump has only a “shell” of a policy plan regarding youth issues, Bilchik said. “It’s not about are you a Republican or a Democrat, it is about [if] children’s issues [will] rise to a high level of priority within an administration.”

Trump’s child care proposal is the only policy stance he has directly addressed on children’s issues in a campaign focused heavily on subjects such as border security and economic growth. Hillary Clinton, the 1977 co-founder of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, has unveiled several positions regarding children’s issues: child care, expanding early childhood education, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and eliminating college student debt.

See info on school to prison pipeline at JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness » Reform Trends

“There are political campaigns that go by where we don’t even hear mention of kids,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a nonpartisan advocacy organization working to make children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Clinton “really injected those issues into her campaign, and we are seeing kids’ issues discussed during this campaign. Hopefully during the debates, there is at least one question pertaining to 25 percent of the population.”

Child care

The Republican nominee’s child care proposal would allow parents to deduct child care expenses from their income taxes and enroll in a tax-free dependent care savings account, up to $2,000 per year; provide low-income households a child care rebate and matching $500 contribution to their savings; give employers incentives to offer child care services at the workplace, and provide six weeks of paid work leave to new mothers “only when employers don't offer paid maternity leave,” according to the Trump Campaign website.

The proposal has been criticized for excluding fathers in paid paternity leave. The policy’s champion, daughter Ivanka Trump, said the plan was intended to help mothers recuperate after childbirth, but it also includes adopted mothers, who don’t require physical recuperation from bearing a baby.

[Related: Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth]

Trump claimed that Clinton lacked a child care plan during a Sept. 13 speech in Aston, Pennsylvania. “Yet very little meaningful policy work has been done in this area, and my opponent has no child care plan. She never will and if it ever evolves into a plan it’ll never get done anyway. All talk. No action,” reported.

However, fact-checkers ruled that Clinton displayed her child care and early childhood education plan months before Trump’s statement. Clinton’s proposal calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, funded by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans. Her plan also includes universal access to preschool for 4-year olds and doubling federal funding to Early Head Start and the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, along with child development and support programs for children younger than age 3 and pregnant women. Clinton’s plan would increase child care on college campuses to take care of an additional 250,000 kids. The goal is for no American family to expend more than 10 percent of its income on child care.

Juvenile justice reform

Clinton has also proposed dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in the adult criminal system. She proposes providing $2 billion in support to schools to reform punishment-focused disciplinary policies. States would be called on to reform school disturbance laws and states encouraged to use federal education funding for social and emotional support interventions.

“We are very excited to see Secretary Clinton on her website calling for reforms particularly focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Geoff Foster, director of organizing and policymaking at UTEC, a center for disconnected teenagers in Lowell, Massachusetts. “That’s something that we are very supportive of, and we are excited about the policy opportunities that could be built up to include young adults, as well.”

UTEC focuses on young adult justice reform, arguing that young people are disproportionately represented in adult corrective facilities, partially due to their incomplete brain development. Foster said he was excited to hear the candidates talk about racial and criminal justice reform in the first debate, though he wants more detailed discussion on those issues.

“We’ve heard from both the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign that there is an appetite for criminal justice reform, but we think there is more opportunity for — and we haven’t heard it yet in the debates, but we think there’s a good opportunity for this to come up — this conversation about how we are treating young adults that are aging out of the juvenile justice system, ending up in the adult system, and recidivating at a high rate,” Foster said.

Higher education

On the topic of older adolescents, Clinton also proposes making college debt-free for students attending their in-state public universities. All community colleges would offer free tuition under her proposal. People currently paying back student loans would be allowed to refinance loans at current rates, interest rates for student loans would be cut and states would have to more heavily invest in higher education. Limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers would pay for these policies.

Trump’s campaign national co-chair and policy advisor Sam Clovis told Inside Higher Ed the Republican nominee believes the government should stay out of the student loan system in favor of private banks, but agrees with Clinton that colleges should share a greater financial risk in unpaid student loans. Clovis said Trump is against debt-free public universities and free community college proposals.

Also affecting college students is the issue of campus sexual assault. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women ages 18 to 24 are at the highest risk of sexual assault compared to all other age groups.

Clinton is in favor of campuses offering comprehensive support to sexual abuse survivors, such as counseling and critical health care that is confidential, comprehensive and coordinated. Her proposal calls for increasing prevention efforts by offering sexual violence prevention education programs in colleges and secondary schools.

Trump supports the Republican Party platform on this issue, which was approved during the Republican convention in Cleveland. It states that sexual assault reports should be investigated by civil authorities and prosecuted in court, rather than by school officials.

VP nominees on children’s issues

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, the almost four-year Indiana governor, negotiated the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program. Later in 2014 he barred Indiana from applying for $80 million in federal funding to expand its effect. Pence said then that he was preventing federal intrusion from entering the program. He altered course on this issue in June, writing a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services expressing interest in federal funding to expand the program. Pence authorized the hiring of 113 new Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) caseworkers in 2016, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued DCS on behalf of overloaded caseworkers. One case manager was representing 43 abused children, when the state law set a maximum of 17, according to ACLU.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine helped expand state preschool programs when he was governor of Virginia. As a current Virginia senator, he introduced a bill in 2015 to expand nationwide access to pre-kindergarten programs and supported the Every Student Succeeds Act, which decreased focus on standardized testing and allowed states more room to set educational policies and authorizes federal funding of out-of-school-time programming through the Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

No matter who is elected, John Gomperts, America’s Promise Alliance president and CEO, hopes the next president will work across political lines to address issues such as the need to increase high school graduation rates.

“Whatever is said and not said in course of this campaign, I hope that whoever becomes president will work to bring everyone together to try to create the conditions under which every young person in America has a real chance to succeed,” Gomperts said. “We need to provide support for young people, especially young people who find themselves in troubling circumstances.”

More related articles:

Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Suspensions and Expulsions

Report: Communities Can Do More to Support Children with an Incarcerated Parent

Fixing a Broken System of Funding Youth Prevention, Intervention Programs

Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth


Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In my case, education fundamentally saved my life. At age 16, I was sentenced to serve six years at a secure juvenile detention facility in upstate New York for the crime of attempted murder.

I committed the offense when I was 15 years and 363 days old. If I been 16 at the time of the offense, I would have been charged as an adult and would have received a much longer sentence than six years.

When I entered the system, I was a completely different person; I was angry, impulsive, uneducated and gang-affiliated. To me, education played no important role in my life; as a matter of fact, very few things mattered to me, including my own life. It was not until I joined the college program of the juvenile detention facility that I was placed at that I realized the important role that education could play in helping young men like myself and others turn their life around.

Truth is, I could barely write when I entered the system and I only started reading after stepping into the system because it was something you could do to pass the time faster. However, what I also realized during my time incarcerated was that many of my peers had also just started reading and writing when they got into the system and so many of them struggled and acted out their frustrations by being disruptive in class or refusing to go to school.

For more examples of re-entry, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Re-entry

I, on the other hand, ended up getting into the GED program of the facility. Although I doubted my own ability to pass the exam, after six months of prepping behind a computer, I took the exam and passed it without a problem. Having come from a household with two undocumented parents who had essentially not continued their education after having come to this country, I felt like I had actually accomplished something. This confidence and the support that I received from a few staff led me to partake in the newly developed college program at my facility. The sad part of all of this, however, was that not all of my peers were gaining the same confidence and/or receiving the same support that as I was.

When I joined the college program, I did not know what I was getting myself into. To put it lightly, I had completely underestimated the program and I learned very quickly that EVERYONE in the program was held to a high standard. However, since I had never been challenged to push myself I constantly bumped heads with the director of the program, which inevitably led me to quit the program three times.

I quit the first two times because I could not write properly and because I was petrified of giving a speech in an English 101 course. However, even with all of my doubts and failures the director of this program still saw something in me and he brought me back into the program only to encourage me to try harder. And, just when I thought I was getting it together, I allowed all of the problems outside of the facility to get the best of me and I dropped out of the college program entirely for a third time. During this gap, my behavior in the facility dropped dramatically and I was steps away of being voluntarily transferred to the adult side of the system.

However, just when I had completely given up on everything, one lawyer, a volunteer of the college program, wrote a letter to me that completely got me to rethink my behavior and my decisions. In that letter she compared my story to that of Nelson Mandela and said that she truly believed that I had the capacity to be an agent of change just like Mandela.

Because of that letter, I decided to stay in the facility and get back into the college program. Although the director initially refused to let me back, thanks to the advocacy of several people I was allowed to return under two conditions: 1) I would take one semester without receiving any credit and 2) I would serve as a mentor to my fellow peers who needed support.

Although I was a bit skeptical about serving as mentor to the rest of my peers I slowly grew into my role and I learned to appreciate my education even more and the true meaning of responsibility. What I came to understand through this process was that youth need advocates who will push their educational needs but that they also need opportunities to make mistakes and be held accountable in ways that are more educational than they are punitive.

When I was released in June 2012, even after having managed to earn 54 college credits I struggled for six months with finding a job and getting into school. In January 2013, when I was close to giving up once again, opportunities began to present themselves left and right. Opportunities which came about through a bit of perseverance and a ton of good luck.

However, now that I look back at my experience I ask professionals in the juvenile justice and education arena this: Why was the transition so hard even for someone like me who was actually trying to do the right thing? Do we want success? Or do we want recidivism?

On May 2015, I successfully completed my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and, during the last four years, I have been actively working around the country to push for reforms that will give young people meaningful second chances (or several chances if needed). I went from being a gang-banging, illiterate, angry Latino kid to a successful advocate and true agent of change.

This all started when people in the system stopped looking me as a lost cause, started viewing me as a college student and who pushed me to think differently about the possibilities. If I had not made the decision to take my education serious while incarcerated and received the support that I needed, I would have likely found myself back in the system or dead on the streets. The problem is: Not every young person who goes through the system has a similar positive experience.

That said, to education and juvenile justice professionals, I provide these recommendations:

    1. Work together to provide youth with various educational options based on their interests and future aspirations: GED programs, college programs, vocational programs, leadership development programs; entrepreneurial training programs, etc.
    2. Provide youth with educational opportunities that promote civic engagement and that are heavily tied to the community.
    3. Connect youth with mentors and other supportive individuals who can provide guidance during their time in placement and who can help ease the transition back into the community.
    4. Push for legislation that removes barriers to employment, education and housing for youth coming out of prison.
    5. Hire enthusiastic facility staff who are ready to support, and not give up on, youth through hard times.
    6. Hire enthusiastic education staff who make learning interactive, engaging and relevant to the real world.
    7. Provide consistent and strong funding for educational programs in juvenile facilities.

Hernan Carvente is the national youth chair for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. He focuses on promoting youth and family engagement and has conducted trainings with diverse stakeholders such as policymakers, researchers, students and professionals in probation, child welfare, juvenile justice and corrections.

Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Suspensions and Expulsions

David Esquith There’s good news and bad news in the report “Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2015,” the most recent in an annual series produced jointly by the U.S. departments of education (ED) and justice (DOJ). Just as important, there’s help available to sustain the good news and tackle the bad.

The good news is that schools are safer than they have ever been, and that crime in the nation’s schools has declined during the past two decades. Two examples illustrate this recent trend.

  • In 2014, students ages 12 to 18 experienced 33 victimizations per 1,000 students at school, a decline of 82 percent from 181 per 1,000 in 1992.
  • Between the 1999-2000 and 2013-14 school years, the percentage of public schools who reported bullying occurred at school at least once per week decreased from 29 to 16 percent.

The bad news is that large numbers of students are losing precious instructional time because they are suspended or expelled, especially African- American and Hispanic students. Two examples illustrate these conditions.

  • Among students who were ninth-graders in fall 2009, about 19 percent had been suspended or expelled by the spring of their 11th-grade year. Not surprisingly, the percentage of these students who had been suspended or expelled was higher for those who did not complete high school than for those who did complete high school by 2013 (54 vs. 17 percent).
  • African-American and Hispanic students are suspended more often than their peers. In school year 2011-12, 6 percent of all public school students received an out-of-school suspension. The rate for African-American (15 percent) and Hispanic (6 percent) students was higher than it was for other racial or ethnic subgroups, such as white (4 percent) and Asian (1 percent) students.

How do we sustain the conditions of good news and turn around those of bad news? First of all, the fact that there is good news is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of educators at every level.

The ED has a number of resources that are free and readily available to educators that can help to sustain these improvements, and reduce suspensions and expulsions. One of those resources is the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) at safesupportivelearning. NCSSLE seeks to improve schools' conditions for learning by providing training and support to state administrators, school and district administrators, institutions of higher education, teachers, support staff at schools, communities and families and students.

In regard to reducing suspensions and expulsions, ED and DOJ have released a school discipline guidance package that can assist states, districts, and schools in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, with a goal of reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions. The package is available at By taking a positive approach to school discipline, schools can respond to misbehavior in a fair, non-discriminatory and effective manner.

Educators, students and parents face an increasingly complex set of technological and interpersonal challenges to maintain safe and supportive learning environments. I am often asked, “What are the biggest threats to school safety?” My response sometimes surprises people, but I expect it does not surprise youth workers. My answer is that some of the biggest threats to school safety are loneliness, fear and hopelessness. Loneliness can make a young person vulnerable to gang involvement or abusive relationships. Fear can trigger a fight-or-flight response. Hopelessness, perhaps the most perilous of the three, can lead a young person to drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and even commit suicide.

Youth workers often model the value of building trusting relationships with young people. To do that effectively, one has to find the good in everyone and nurture it, rather than “fix” the “problem” behavior. That is no small feat — one that takes insight and patience.

When one of my daughters was in third grade, I asked her who her favorite teacher had been since kindergarten. After she named the teacher, I asked her why this particular teacher was her favorite. She responded immediately, “Because she believes in everyone.” Those wonderful educators who believe in everyone are making our schools safer and creating positive school environments.

David Esquith is director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students.

Report: Communities Can Do More to Support Children with an Incarcerated Parent


Children with an incarcerated parent often suffer emotionally, academically and financially, and too few policies consider their needs, says a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Nationwide, more than 5.1 million children have experienced separation from a parent because of incarceration — a situation that can be as difficult as dealing with abuse or domestic violence, said the report, “A Shared Sentence.”

Research shows children may experience increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and children of incarcerated mothers, in particular, are more likely to drop out of school.

“Our nation’s overreliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the foundation, in a news release.

A reduced reliance on mass incarceration would help families, but policymakers and communities also can take shorter-term steps to improve children’s lives, the report said.

[Related: Prison Punishes Criminals’ Children, Panelists Say]

The foundation made recommendations in three areas: supporting children directly during and after a parent’s incarceration, connecting parents to employment when they re-enter the community, and building stronger communities that promote family stability and opportunity.

Proposals to help children include:

  • Encouraging judges to consider families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions,
  • Helping caregivers with financial, legal, health, child care and housing assistance when they step in to care for a child,
  • Supporting community-based organizations that foster children’s well-being.

Sandra Barnhill, founder and national president of Foreverfamily, an Atlanta nonprofit that works with the children of incarcerated youth, said it is critical not to demonize parents.

“Unless we really acknowledge the important role that parent plays in that family or in the children’s life, we do a disservice to families, parents and even to re-entry,” she said.

The group organizes trips so children can visit their parents in prison, provides after-school programming for children and youth who have incarcerated parents, and offers training and technical assistance to other organizations, including a toolkit for after-school providers that is expected to be released later this year.

Barnhill said out-of-school time leaders who are looking to support children who have an incarcerated parent should be mindful of preserving families’ privacy and avoiding stigmatization. Society is not often kind or understanding about what children are going through, she added.

“We have to raise public awareness. These children cannot continue to be invisible,” she said.

Additional recommendations

To encourage employment, the recommendations include building better prison education programs, passing ban-the-box legislation and suspending child support orders.

And, to strengthen communities, the report advises building a supply of safe and stable housing.

“Leaders can take action right now to support children from the moment their families come in contact with the criminal justice system,” Scot Spencer, Casey’s associate director of policy and influence, said in a news release.

More related articles:

Report Helps Police Protect Kids While Arresting Their Parents

Fixing a Broken System of Funding Youth Prevention, Intervention Programs

AMJ HeadshotIf you are a young person in Los Angeles County who feels angry, has poor grades or disrespects authority, you might be “recruited” to voluntarily work with a probation officer and receive services — as long as you’ve never been on probation before. Like thousands of young people, you fall into a murkily defined population of so-called “at-risk” youth who receive services that range from tutoring to counseling to drug and gang interventions through the Probation Department.

There is little data to suggest that probation supervising at-risk youth is a good investment of our public dollars — and even research that indicates that it’s not. Yet these services have been consistently funded through an approximate $30 million that Los Angeles County receives from the state each year as its share of Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) funding.

JJCPA money is intended to fund effective prevention and intervention programs for youth to ultimately reduce crime and delinquency. Since at least 2014, the number of at-risk youth (4,007 that year) who were supervised at school under JJCPA has exceeded the number of youth actually on probation (3,673).

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Counter to any evidence that it’s wise, we now invest the largest sums of JJCPA money in a catch-all category of “at-risk youth” who have never been accused of a crime or delinquent behavior, and yet have some contact with law enforcement. And it is just one reason that there are a lot of questions about how effective these programs have been and who oversees this money.

The funding in Los Angeles County is administered through the Probation Department, which is the largest in the nation — operating with an annual budget of about $840 million, 6,600 employees and more than 70,000 youth and adults monitored or served under its purview. And as scrutiny over the department’s vast structure, finances and service delivery have increased, so too has scrutiny over its stewardship of JJCPA funds.

Indeed, there has been clear acknowledgment in recent weeks by the Probation Department, county officials and advocates alike that no comprehensive evaluation or redesign of its JJCPA programs has happened since the funds were made available in 2001. As a result, these programs have remained essentially the same over the last 15 years without actual clarity on their impact on youth or crime reduction.

This is a serious matter that raises serious questions about how JJCPA dollars are allocated and what services youth are actually receiving in Los Angeles County. On April 6, many of these questions were asked at a public meeting about JJCPA funds. The questions were also focused on $21.7 million of JJCPA funds that were discovered as unspent in Los Angeles County before the Board of Supervisors recently intervened late in 2015. This intervention was the result of a seven-part audit that commenced in April 2015.

[Related: Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear]

The audit findings have shown that Probation’s average cost per youth has risen to over $233,000 — a number that is staggering when compared with per-pupil spending in California that hovers around $10,000 annually. It is confounding that the department spends nearly a quarter of million dollars per youth — yet rates of crime, arrest, filing and incarceration of youth have fallen drastically over the last five years coupled with the fact that the county’s 13 probation camps and three juvenile halls are nearly half-empty. This trend, including a reduction in overall numbers of system-involved youth in Los Angeles County, is inconsistent with the JJCPA budget allocations by the Probation Department.

Oftentimes, the Probation Department and its vast bureaucracy operate under a thick cloud, including the way in which funding is channeled throughout the department. On April 6, the meeting, which was run by probation leaders, felt just as perplexing. It was pointed out that the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JJCC), the body that develops and votes on a spending plan for JJCPA dollars, might not even be able to vote that day.

Under state statute, the JJCC is chaired by the Probation chief and must include, at a minimum, specifically listed community-based representatives. The Probation Department has readily admitted that the composition of the JJCC has not complied with state statute. In short, the fox has been guarding the henhouse.

But that changed by the end of the meeting. In the 11th hour, after many JJCC members abstained from voting, the JJCC and the Probation Department scrambled to add one at-large community member so that it could — and did — vote on and pass its spending plans.

That’s perhaps some small win for young people. But greater progress will come when the JJCC diligently adds the other required, and still missing, community voices in its composition — voices that the law says must be part of the process for developing a funding plan and overseeing whether these programs work.

Moving forward, the Board of Supervisors should make this a clear priority — so the JJCC becomes a robust body that is more than just an adjunct of county agencies. With ultimate authority over the Probation Department’s budget, the Board should continue to ask further questions — and peel back the layers of the JJCPA budget to understand whether these tens of millions of public dollars are being spent effectively and, indeed, leading to better outcomes for close to 30,000 youth.

Alex M. Johnson is the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California, the state office of the national Children’s Defense Fund founded in 1973 by Marian Wright Edelman. He also serves as vice-chair of the Working Group on Los Angeles County Probation Department Oversight and as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education.

More related articles:

Girls in Trouble: Providing the Right Response

Children’s Village Transformative Mentoring

New Initiative Will Help Raise the Bar for Serving Youth in Custody

Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Erin Espinosa CroppedLast week I stood in my swivel-based office chair attempting to hang a picture. It had been bothering me all week and surely using this approach would be successful and quick.

Just as I stretched as far as I could and began to loop the latch on the back of the frame to the nail, the chair I was standing on shot out from under me. Sprawled in the middle of my office with every part of my body in pain, I began to contemplate my ability for complex decision-making.

Here I am, with a couple advanced degrees, and I virtually knocked myself out hanging a picture. Surely I know better, so I should have chosen a ladder or at least a stable chair. Either one would have increased my level of success and decreased my level of pain.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

With that image in mind, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of balancing care and control in the juvenile justice system. Often the tool of choice in juvenile justice is the hammer — a tool that is driven with power and accountability, monitoring compliance and wielding authority.

Although the hammer is useful for its intended purpose, it doesn’t work very well in circumstances where other tools are a better fit. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, a hammer wouldn’t tighten a screw.

For juvenile justice, the system often overpromises the versatility of the hammer, ignoring the other tools in the box needed to build bridges for youth, families and communities. In doing so our probation officers are often underequipped to prevent youth from becoming funneled deeper into the system, especially youth with untreated or undiagnosed mental health needs.

Most estimates of prevalence range from 50 to 75 percent, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of youths having a serious emotional disorder. When compared to the estimates among the general population, 9 to 20 percent of youth indicating a mental health need, it is obvious youth with mental health challenges are disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system.

In fact, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives found two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities across the country reported holding youth in detention not because of the seriousness of their offenses but because they were awaiting mental health care.

These youth enter a justice system that is ill-equipped to respond to and support the complex and multisystemic issues facing them. Youth with mental health challenges present symptoms of their problems in multiple settings, including the school, community and home.

Subsequently, they pose a challenge to the traditional model of supervision. It’s no surprise that officers who supervise justice-involved youth with mental health challenges identify the most daunting issue regarding successful supervision as accessing and coordinating social services.

[Related: The Importance of Treating for Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth]

When unsuccessful under supervision, youth will often be charged with a violation of probation and placed in out-of-home settings. This is especially true for youth who are court-ordered to treatment or other services and supports.

Recidivism studies indicate the rates of rearrest for juvenile offenders who have returned from residential treatment and/or juvenile correctional settings range from 40 percent and 65 percent to as high as 85 percent. These findings suggest that when justice-involved youth return to the community from placement, including placements with mental health treatment, there is a very high likelihood that they will cycle back through the system or become engaged in the adult criminal justice system.

Fortunately, states across the country are beginning to look at effective alternatives and diversion models from the juvenile justice system for youth with mental health needs. In Texas, diversion from the system took shape as the Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI), a preadjudicatory model that focuses on the use of specialized juvenile probation officers (SJPOs) — essentially probation officers who also take on the role of a case manager.

With specialized supervision, exclusive caseloads facilitate the linking of youth with mental health needs to appropriate services, improve their level of functioning and reduce the number of noncompliance revocations of probation. These officers are extensively trained in adolescent mental health, crisis intervention and family involvement, and serve as a broker between youth and community resources and supports. While working toward supervision goals, specialized supervision also works on treatment goals.

Preliminary data suggest that by rethinking the model of traditional probation, youth were significantly less likely to be adjudicated and more likely to receive needed mental health supports. Youth who had specialized supervision were also more likely to access community services such as individual therapy, family counseling and other community resources than those under traditional supervision. However, despite the data, many states, including Texas, do not implement statewide policies that encourage the adoption of this more successful approach.

When we look at the data, it is clear that the specialized supervision model is promising. In any given year more than 1 million juveniles are arrested across the country. Probation departments initially see most of those youth, and more than half of their cases receive court-ordered supervision.

If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. Given the disproportionately high number of juveniles who enter the system with an unmet mental health need, states and local jurisdictions must change the tools they make available to supervising juvenile probation officers.

Rethinking probation will require more than just buy-in from any one department or county. Rather, systemic change through state-level policies has more potential to effectively replace the hammer of traditional probation with specialized supervision, linking youth to effective services and supports to reduce recidivism and promote better long-term outcomes.

Erin Espinosa, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Reach her at

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Girls in Trouble: Providing the Right Response

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Girls in Trouble: Providing the Right Response



One of the starkest statistics in the lives of girls today is that 73 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have been physically or sexually abused, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice figures.

A report last summer referred to this as the “sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline."

Experiencing abuse is one of the major predictors of girls themselves getting into trouble, according to the report published by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women.

The most common crimes for which girls are arrested — including running away, substance abuse and truancy — are also the most common symptoms of abuse, the report noted.

“Girls are pretty invisible” in current efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, said Stephanie Covington, a psychologist who provides training and consulting services to criminal justice agencies through the La Jolla, California-based Center for Gender and Justice.

“People don’t talk about the girls,” she said.


Most people are really surprised to learn that the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice population is increasing, Covington said. They are surprised at the level of abuse girls have suffered and the prevalence of trafficking.

Organizations that work with girls — from community organizations to juvenile justice agencies — need to respond to the conditions of girls’ lives, Covington said.

They need to recognize and work with the trauma that underlies the behavior of many girls, and they should take an approach tailored to girls’ needs, she said.

Girls who are harmed by sexual violence but who have economic stability, adequate schools, safe neighborhoods and access to mental health services tend to be buffered from further harm, according to a Crittenton Foundation report released last October.

“For girls at the margin, the experience of sexual violence often funnels them into the juvenile justice system,” the foundation’s report said.

Each year, 578,000 girls are arrested, according to the foundation.

From acting out to helping out

In the seventh grade, Regina (not her real name) began getting in trouble in her Broward County, Florida, middle school. She began cutting classes. She quit doing schoolwork. She also got into fights.

“I was being violent,” she said.

After one fight with another girl, she was arrested and had to appear in juvenile court.

She was sentenced to a nine-month community-service diversion program.

But when she went back to school in the eighth grade, not enough had changed.

She then entered the day program at PACE Center for Girls, a Florida nonprofit that offers schooling, counseling and life skills training.

PACE, which stands for Practical Academic Cultural Education, takes a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach, emphasizing healthy relationships, good decision-making and communication skills. It also engages each girl’s family in an effort to support motherdaughter relationships.

The program focuses on self-respect, self-confidence and issues of sexuality.

“The actual environment is different,” Regina said. The classes are smaller and the teachers are nicer, she said.

In a big high school they wouldn't even know your name, Regina said.

“Here they actually care about you,” she said.

At PACE, Regina learned to trust people again, and she delved into the issues that underlay her aggressive behavior in school.

“My counselor helps me with my self-esteem,” she said.

Not only did Regina re-engage in school, she came to care about the other girls and the adults at PACE. And she developed a career goal.

She’s interested in forensic science and wants to run her own business helping adults and kids who have been traumatized by sexual abuse.

“I want to help them find justice,” she said.

The PACE Center for Girls in Florida takes a gender-responsive approach in working with girls at risk for delinquency. The program focuses on creating a safe environment that celebrates strengths.

Dealing with delinquency

PACE’s 19 centers serve girls at risk of delinquency. Fifty to 60 girls attend each center.

In 2008, the Annie E. Casey Foundation called PACE "the most effective program in the nation for keeping adolescent girls out of the juvenile justice system” in the foundation’s Kids Count report.

Twenty-eight percent of girls at PACE have had a prior arrest. Three-fourths are failing in school. Nineteen percent have been physically abused, 17 percent sexually abused, and 23 percent emotionally abused.

In addition to providing a caring environment, nurturing relationships, counseling and life skills training, PACE connects girls with the larger community.

Regina, for example, said she really benefited from the opportunity to meet new people. Girls go on field trips and meet adults doing work that interests the girls.

One field trip was to a forensics lab, which sparked Regina’s interest.

“I learned from two of the forensics workers” how they find fingerprints and gather information from blood spatters, she said.

“I’m really motivated,” she said.

“I hope to find a job in a forensics field,” she said.

Nurturing environment

When Melinda Patterson appears in court these days, it’s as a criminal defense attorney. However, as a youngster, she saw court from a different angle — a kid brought in for truancy and fighting.

Patterson was a straight-A student in elementary school. However, her mother worked nights, and when she was a teenager Patterson had little supervision. “I was left to my own devices,” she said. She had also experienced abuse as a small child.

By the ninth grade, she barely attended school. But when she transferred to PACE, she responded to the relationship-focused environment.

She describes it as nurturing and caring — and nearly impossible to skip class. Not only was the building locked during school hours, but if a student went missing “10 people would be out looking for you,” Patterson said.

Students did not slip through the cracks; rather, they were held accountable, Patterson said.

“It was life-changing when I started holding myself accountable,” she said. “It just finally clicked that I needed to do this for me. It was really up to me.”

With only 15 or so girls in a class, teachers could adjust the teaching to meet student needs, Patterson said.

“Every teacher knows every student’s back story, their home life and everything that’s going on,” she said. Under their tutelage, Patterson was able to graduate from high school a year early at age 17.

Students from PACE speak at the 2016 All About Girls Summit in Jacksonville, Florida. The summit brought together policymakers, funders and girl-serving organizations from across the country to address the needs of girls.
Students from PACE speak at the 2016 All About Girls Summit in Jacksonville, Florida. The summit brought together policymakers, funders and girl-serving organizations from across the country to address the needs of girls.

A movement for girls

PACE recently convened a nationwide “girls summit” in Orlando, bringing together out-of-school organizations such as Girls Inc. with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and foundations including the National Crittenton Foundation and NoVo Foundation.

The gathering challenged the lack of response to the needs of girls,” said Mary Marx, president and CEO of PACE. It sought to begin a nationwide girl movement, she said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Bureau of Justice is also pushing for a genderspecific and trauma-informed approach within the juvenile justice system. Three years ago it launched the National Girls Initiative to provide resources to state, local and tribal groups.

Several states including Florida, Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon and Minnesota now require their juvenile justice systems to specifically address girls’ needs. In Hawaii, for example, a separate girls court in the state judiciary’s First Circuit provides counseling to girls and their parents for a year in effort to strengthen relationships and address the issues that brought the girls to court.

A gender-responsive approach

In a webinar hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2013, Covington presented six “guiding principles” for taking a genderresponsive approach to working with girls at risk for delinquency.

The first is to acknowledge that gender makes a difference, she said.

“If you are working in an agency, a program or a juvenile justice system that believes that it does not make any difference whether you are treating boys or girls, it means that there is a good chance you will not get good services for girls,” she said in the webinar.

The environment is second: It should be based on safety, respect and dignity. “The environment is critical,” she said. It is not enough to acquire a curriculum labeled “gender-responsive,” Covington said. The environment has to become gender-responsive and new staff attitudes must be developed.

Relationships are important. A program should promote healthy connections with a girl’s important relationships.

Services should be comprehensive, she said. The specific socioeconomic needs of girls should be considered and promoted. For example, is the organization addressing the needs of pregnant and parenting girls to continue their education and gain job skills?

The number of girls who are pregnant in the U.S. juvenile justice system is unknown, but research from local systems shows that around 30 percent of girls are or have been pregnant in those systems, according to the Human Rights Project for Girls “sexualabuse- to-prison pipeline” report.

Finally, comprehensive community services are needed, Covington said.

“Once a girl has a trauma history, this is highly associated with alcohol and drug use, high-risk sexual behaviors, sex work, physical and mental disorders,“ Covington said.

So a program for girls must be traumainformed, she said.

“This would be an agency or program that has an understanding of trauma. They avoid any kind of triggering of trauma reactions, and they make adjustments in the organization so those who are trauma survivors can actually benefit from the service they are trying to provide.”

The program must understand both trauma triggers and self-calming strategies, she said.

It really creates a culture shift within an organization, Covington said. Regina could easily have become a statistic in the juvenile justice system. In the seventh grade, she was acting out aggressively and was headed for further trouble.

But nurtured in a trauma-informed program designed to address the needs of girls, she blossomed, addressing her feelings, developing empathy for others and turning her skills and interests into actions that benefit her and others.

Now 15, Regina successfully ran for student government president at the PACE center she attends. Her platform in the election: “How may I help you?”

New Initiative Will Help Raise the Bar for Serving Youth in Custody

umpierre photo Increasingly, juvenile justice advocates and system partners are calling for the closure of large, prison-like youth facilities. While these reforms are critically important given the research showing the dangers of confinement — particularly for low-risk youth — the practical reality is that reaching such a paradigm shift will not happen overnight.

In any jurisdiction, the effort will require a comprehensive strategy focused relentlessly on achieving public safety and positive youth outcomes. A full continuum of community-based services will need to be developed. Youth will need to be safely transitioned home. Buy-in from communities and stakeholders will need to be attained.

As we engage in these efforts, we must ask ourselves: What happens to the kids left in facilities in the meantime?

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, approximately 54,000 youth were placed in residential facilities in 2013, representing a 50 percent decline in the number of youth in placement since 1999. Unfortunately, as the overall numbers of youth in confinement have dropped, challenges at the facility level have seemingly increased.

Anecdotally, juvenile justice administrators and staff across the country report seeing higher percentages of high-risk, high-need youth residents. This includes young people with significant educational, mental health, substance use and gang involvement issues. More than ever, staff operating these facilities seek assistance to better serve these populations.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of research on “what works” for court-involved youth. Two strategies, in particular, are supported by the science on positive youth development: (1) helping youth develop skills and competencies; and (2) supporting meaningful, long-lasting connections to families and pro-social supports. If we can do those two basic things for youth, we stand a better chance of keeping them from further penetrating the justice system and getting them on the path to success.

It is widely recognized that, in general, facilities that are smaller in capacity, maintain homelike environments and are located close to youth’s homes are better suited for therapeutic and family-focused approaches. This is why moving away from the use of big, institutional “youth prisons” is so essential.

But for many jurisdictions, changing facilities’ physical plants or hardware — or replacing facilities altogether with smaller ones based in the community — will simply not be immediately feasible. Until the system is fundamentally realigned, it is incumbent on all system partners to do everything possible with the facilities that currently exist.

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And there’s a lot that can be done. Education programs can be transformed into dynamic learning environments that align with guiding principles and equip youth for community success. Cognitive-behavioral interventions, which help kids improve their decision-making and have been proven to reduce recidivism, can be delivered.

Family engagement can be prioritized by including loved ones and supporters in facility programming and encouraging them to visit regularly (which is linked to improved youth behavior and academic performance). The facility’s physical space can be softened with the use of color, artwork and comfortable furniture. These strategies, and many others, can help facilities create healthier environments that foster positive staff-youth relationships, promote youth development and prepare youth for successful community re-entry.

Nevertheless, in my current capacity at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and my past experiences as co-coordinator of the National Center for Youth in Custody, I have too often seen well-intentioned facility improvement efforts fall short.

Two pitfalls to achieving sustainable reform are common: (1) initiatives are piecemeal and not intentionally linked to an overarching strategy based on core principles; and (2) administrators do not provide staff with adequate levels of training, tools and support.

Ultimately, transforming the way business is done within facilities is an exercise in culture change. If leadership cannot make the agency’s mission and philosophy permeate  every element of daily practice, and equip and empower staff to carry out the work, any reform effort is doomed to fail.

For all these reasons, we at CJJR have partnered with the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators to develop the Youth in Custody Practice Model initiative, an effort designed to assist agencies to deliver high-quality services to youth in residential placement. The model itself is a comprehensive, research-based framework that details the practices agency staff must undertake to achieve positive outcomes for youth, families, staff and communities.

As part of the initiative, a team of field experts will provide up to three state or county juvenile correctional agencies (selected after a competitive application process) with 18 months of intensive training and technical assistance, including on-site and distance support, to develop and begin to implement strategic action plans in targeted facilities. It is our hope that through this process we can help agencies enhance the “footprint” of their existing facilities — working to align cultures and practices with what the research shows works.

Juvenile justice reform is multifaceted and can be achieved using different, but complementary, strategies. While moving away from the use of large institutions is important, it is equally imperative that we serve those youth remaining in custody as effectively as possible.
Michael Umpierre is a senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, Michael's experience includes co-coordinating the National Center for Youth in Custody, serving as the chief of staff for the District of Columbia's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and representing youth and adults as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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