Heaven Has Picked Some Lovely Flowers This Past Week

Like so many others, my heart is heavy from learning of the tragic losses of two wonderful people this past week. These two were not just good people, they were amazingly good people. And like so many times when tragedy strikes, we are left with loving memories but deep feelings of loss, sadness and even anger.

Tiffany Joslyn, Deputy Chief Counsel, Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations for Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee in the United States House of Representatives was killed in a car accident this past weekend along with her brother. Badly injured is Tiffany’s sister-in-law. So please, send prayers and support all around for Tiffany’s family. Words fail to surface in sufficient quality or quantity when considering Tiffany’s contributions to the country. A noted child advocate who also focused on issues of inequality and injustice, she was an ardent and very bright policy adviser to members of Congress as well as many advocacy organizations with whom she interacted.  Tiffany met with us recently in the Rayburn House Office Building to strategize on juvenile justice and related policies. During those conversations her experience and wisdom were so evident — we all looked to her leadership and counsel as strategies and ideas were proposed. She was delightfully articulate, patient, and insightful. Her heart was so open to finding meaningful, impactful solutions to the seemingly intractable problems young people of color face in our country. Members and staff colleagues in Congress as well as a myriad of organizations and other friends will miss her so very much.

Another shocking and tragic story came from Louisville, Kentucky last week. Raycinnio Rankin, a young man who had turned his life around to become a valued and respected member of Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and their Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, was found shot to death. Circumstances are unclear and not much is publicly known at this time. Raycinnio became an active, respected member of Kentucky’s efforts to reduce juvenile crime as well as to right the social imbalances occurring as a result of various system-related inequities at state and national levels. The Advisory Board noticed his leadership potential and introduced Raycinnio to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice through various regional and national meetings. He always had something meaningful to say. As meetings were held across the country, Raycinnio represented Kentucky very well. He truly wanted to be a voice for those without opportunity. Convicted of a felony in 1998, Raycinnio’s efforts to change ultimately resulted in Kentucky’s Governor Steve Beshear issuing a full pardon to him some 3 months ago prior to the Governor leaving office. Raycinnio was driven to lead by example. He often shared the mistakes he’d made with others at risk of similar circumstances. He had started his own business and felt driven to spend time in neighborhoods where others were going down the same path he’d taken a decade earlier. Hopefully, Louisville law enforcement officials will quickly solve this crime and help his family heal where possible.

These two warm, generous, compassionate, deeply concerned human beings were heavyweights on the “good” side of life’s equation. The world seems tilted a little bit more to the contrary these days following their tragic and untimely deaths. Please put a very heartfelt moment of reflection in your days ahead for Tiffany and Raycinnio as well as their families. Heaven has some beautiful new flowers these days — while in our world we look to console each other and perhaps seek new voices to join the chorus calling for more positive futures for our youth.



Challenging Times, But We Must Acknowledge Some Truths

Like many in this country, I was left speechless when Cleveland’s grand jury decision was announced — to not to pursue charges against the responding officers responsible for Tamir Rice’s death. The video of the incident is heartbreaking and wrenches me each time I see it. But criminal intent is much different than poor judgment and ineffective communications. How many of us have worked with others like Tamir and their siblings throughout our careers? It is a different, duplicitous and dangerous world inhabited by African-American youths and other children of color in this country, now more than ever.

I offer no pre-judgment of the officers or the system here. I have walked alongside law enforcement throughout my entire 30+ year career and have lasting respect for all 1st responders. But clearly we are in dangerous territory in this country. There is a palpable, disquieting and nervous feeling across our nation relative to communities, race, policing, politics and economics.

In my own community, gun and youth violence remain at intolerably high rates, especially among children and families of color. So many complex issues: generational poverty, racism, political structure and a capitalistic system that could be viewed as more and more engineered rather than truly free market in its dynamics. But make no mistake — law enforcement isn’t where we should focus our outrage.

We need to have honest conversations — about families and community systems in support or not of families; open and permissive sexuality/sexual behaviors; parenting skills/strategies; the role of privilege and money in creating and enforcing policies in our country (at every level); the lack of effective and science-based child and family policy; and the noted disaffection adults and youth have for engaging in the voting process (indeed, all civic processes). Elections have become much more about money, power and influence, and less about issues relevant to “every man” or “every woman” (and certainly never about “every child”).

Bubbling up across college campuses, urban centers, public schools and even local convenience stores is a dyspeptic recognition that we cannot continue our current course. With a shrinking middle class, our country may become even more polarized between the haves and have-nots (economically). Dynamics from such a system generate a rising consciousness as to social, political, economic and other inequities that foment as the media covers various violence-related interactions between those empowered to ensure public safety and the citizens they interact with.

There is much to do with law enforcement agencies to help “on the ground” responses to these much larger social and economic issues. Absolutely more training, coaching, administrative accountability and conversations about legitimacy and transparency must happen. We shouldn’t waste another moment to get started. But law enforcement officers live and work within communities and aren’t unaware of these problems. We owe it to them to help provide the accountability and transparency that citizens demand; yet we also owe it to them to recognize the extremely complex, unpredictable, and often violent situations to which they are called and must respond — and provide the tools, training and support needed for everyone to be kept safe in an unbiased, responsible way. This begins at the ballot box, in homes and around dinner tables, and requires that folks become engaged in public policies that strengthen families, ensure positive child/youth development, balance social (and racial) equity and healthful living while fostering true free market dynamics in the process.

Thoughts on the De-Incarceration Trend

So it’s picking up steam – the de-incarceration dialogue. Key political figures, bipartisan coalitions, conservatives and liberals, foundations and advocacy groups are coalescing around the fact that the United States has built a massive system of prisons and jails but failed to achieve its overarching public safety goals. Recidivism rates are unacceptable (adult and juvenile); youths are pervasively harmed in various jails, lockups, institutions and prisons across the country; many juvenile justice “systems” have less-than-acceptable outcomes relative to individual and community functioning after youths interact with the juvenile justice system – yet prison spending alone is now estimated at $74 billion annually (about $7.4 billion to private prisons according to Vera Institute and Council of State Governments). What!?

Imagine what your state or community could do with a fraction of that spending if you had a cohesive, science-driven and health-focused (e.g., nurturing communities, prevention-focused) system of care for all families, not just vulnerable ones. We know from prevention research that with wise investments in health care, school-community and youth/family interventions, we can save billions of dollars over the lifetime of children and youth that receive such interventions. Yet we seem to be pushing hard to de-incarcerate without the broader dialogue as to how to properly invest and scale effective programs in these three critical areas.

I love that we’re talking about closing prisons and focusing our work at the community level. I’m very happy that we acknowledge our disappointments over “get tough” criminal justice policies such as mandatory minimums, structured sentencing that disallows flexibility and common sense in dealing with lower risk offenders — I also love that the discussion is an intelligent one that includes budget, policy, and multiple impact layers and is not just a one-dimensional conversation (e.g., budgetary savings alone). Yet what I’m not hearing loudly enough are conversations to help shape the national vision for what healthy communities can and should look like. Why aren’t we having concomitant discussions as to how to invest our intervention dollars in prevention strategies with proven records of success and in developmentally appropriate ways? Why aren’t we expanding Nurse-Home Visiting Partnerships all over the map? Investing in anti-bullying programs and the Good Behavior Game in elementary schools? Funding universal high-quality pre-kindergarten? Offering affordable, community-based programs such as Strengthening Families and ecologically scaled efforts like Communities That Care? Broadening healthy nutrition programs? There are many other great interventions and approaches – these are listed as examples.

The list goes on and on. And one answer is that while we’ve been investing in prevention science, we’ve invested much less in learning HOW to bring successful evidence-supported practices to widespread scale, in culturally and contextually relevant ways so that many more could benefit from these successful interventions.

So I strongly encourage everyone in the de-incarceration dialogue to invest in the future of prevention (before we start shutting down prisons without appropriate community-based solutions). Let’s work hard to shift dollars away from ineffective and in fact overly punitive public safety responses toward technologies and solutions that, when combined with effective public health strategies (e.g., surveillance, community mapping, and population-based prevention / early interventions) contribute to more nurturing, positive communities. Let’s create a measured plan where we build healthy communities by investing in these approaches and at the same time reduce our unsuccessful dependence on incarceration strategies. By engaging populations at early and appropriate points on the developmental continuum – we can really have the communities that we all deserve and feel much more positive about our investments in our families and institutions.

JJDPA Reauthorization – Accountability and Transparency at Many Levels

On April 21st, Senators Grassley and Whitehouse hosted an important Congressional oversight meeting involving compliance performance management, OJJDP, DOJ and ultimately – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (not formally reauthorized since 2002). Experts provided valuable testimony; many important take home points were noted including the Senate’s strong support for reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

What seemed apparent in the hearing was the recognition of multiple layers of responsibility for the problems – from budgeting and appropriations policy (Congress), to DOJ/OJJDP (regulatory, administrative, compliance) to states (implementation, compliance, integrity).

It is important to fix things and be accountable. Also important are transparency, authenticity and commitment to the policy goals of the JJDPA for everyone involved at every level. We are kidding ourselves if anyone believes that states can realistically reduce Disproportionate Minority Contact on a couple of hundred thousand dollars (such as being asked of the minimum allocation states and territories). Hard to imagine how folks can effectively monitor and comply with the expectations of the Act with current federal appropriations levels. We delude ourselves when advocating for an Act that reinforces this expectation if appropriations and implementation supports are not in place to fulfill policy goals. And we shouldn’t settle. By settling I mean advocating for a policy (in this case the JJDPA) and claiming victory if/when the Act is reauthorized but sufficient funding does not follow.  Sure the JJDPA saves thousands of lives and is a terrific federal policy for protecting vulnerable children and youth. Yet we are likely to be complicit in misleading our states and ultimately our kids if Congress, DOJ/OJJDP and the states don’t put into place the proper tools to get the job done.

Colleagues at the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives, National Implementation Research Network, SAMHSA, Administration for Children & Families (HHS), Children’s Bureau, Corporation for National & Community Service – Social Innovation Fund among others have a growing set of tools, research and ideas for how to truly get the most effective outcomes when investing public and private dollars. It is past time to build the sorts of collaborative and accountable partnerships in government (all levels) to achieve better results. Such partnerships offer the expertise and training that would significantly help in supplementing the existing wisdom found among career government employees. We owe it to our children and families, our taxpayers and all others to ensure that we properly resource and carry out effective policies. Let’s get the JJDPA reauthorized with updated prevention science embedded in the Act, improved regulatory guidelines and management, stronger administration but most of all  — proper resources to get the job(s) done.

It’s Time, North Carolina To Raise the Age

Often mentioned in the same sentence, North Carolina and New York are the last two states in the country sending 16 and 17-year-old youth accused of crimes to the adult criminal justice system. Now that may change. In their recently released report (1/19/15), the New York Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety, & Justice definitively called for legislation to phase in raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to age 18 over the next three years (the full report is available at this link ——- –https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/ReportofCommissiononYouthPublicSafetyandJustice_0.pdf).

Governor Cuomo supported raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in his January 2014 State of the State address, stating “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated….It’s not right; it’s not fair.” With the latest Commission report inclusive of the most contemporary adolescent developmental science, public safety research, evidence-based practices, and the results of various reforms enacted in New York over the past few decades, not raising the age would counter almost every intuitive and rational way of thinking about what’s best for youth and New York generally. The Commission’s report includes cost-benefit studies showing budgetary and crime victimization savings that will occur by shifting juveniles from the adult to the juvenile justice system, in addition to broadening non-institutional and evidence supported practices as well as community-based interventions. The use of graduated responses at local levels is also encouraged. The projected taxpayer and crime victim savings are substantial. And most of all, the recommendations in the report mirror what the rest of the country has known for some time now — adolescents are developmentally different than adults, and approaches to changing their lives must be different too. Placing 16 and 17-year-old youths in adult criminal justice systems dramatically heightens prospects of their committing future crimes; it also increases the chances of serious mental health/substance abuse disorders among participants including worsening suicidal tendencies; and, the results of such practices are particularly detrimental to persons of color. The lifelong impacts of overly harsh and sometimes inconsistent treatment along with the collateral consequences of having an adult criminal record can be mitigated with thoughtful policies.

North Carolina’s Legislators and Governor can look at Governor Cuomo’s Commission report as a bit of a hand off – work done for them by an informed and thoughtful, diverse set of stakeholders that thoroughly performed their due diligence but also got it right in another state. It’s time, North Carolina, to join the rest of the country in modernizing the juvenile justice system by adopting a developmentally appropriate, evidence-supported and community focused juvenile justice system. Legislators can design the fiscal incentives and policies to make it happen — and then like other states, citizens will watch as budgetary savings occur to society as well as improvements in the lives of crime victims over the long run, while communities become safer.

JJDPA Optimism With a Dose of Additional Encouragement

As 2015 begins, the juvenile justice world’s heartbeat is quickening now that Senators Whitehouse and Grassley have signaled their intention to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reauthorization bill. Advocates have waited a long time for congressional leadership in this matter. Draft bill text includes strengthening of the Act in several ways: phasing out of the Valid Court Order exception (affecting status offenders), a sensitivity to the impact of trauma on at-risk and juvenile justice involved youth, more intentional language toward reducing racial disparities, strengthening language requiring an evidence basis (proven or promising) for all federally funded programs/services, language that clarifies and strengthens compliance assessments relative to core protections, (including efforts to encourage more appropriate responses to problem behaviors other than through segregation/isolation/chemical or other restraints), and additional improvements. Moreover, the proposed legislation heeds research on adolescent development and copious scientific findings clarifying youth developmental processes as separate from those found in adults, and acknowledges that juvenile justice systems should be constructed to enhance optimal adolescent growth while protecting the public.

As Congress builds support for reauthorizing this important legislation, it is critical that the juvenile justice and prevention science fields stand up and be counted as supporting federal policy leadership in this area. Forty years of JJDPA influence have led to significantly positive outcomes for youth via the Act. Nonetheless, we can and should do more. We know from prevention science that early, effective and cost-beneficial evidence supported practices not only reduce juvenile crime, but strengthen families, help youth achieve better education and occupational outcomes, support perceptions of community safety and save substantial societal costs in the long run. We also know that a focus on compliance without a proportionally strong focus on prevention sends a message that the back/deep end of the system is where much of the administrative attention shall fall and not so much on the front end — which by the way, is the most critical component. Research consistently has shown that strong family-school partnerships, school-law enforcement relationships, effective diversion options, restorative justice practices, faith community engagement, clinical and skills-based parenting or other programs are answers to a broad array of problems facing low to moderate risk youths and their families.

We are extremely appreciative of Senators Whitehouse and Grassley for the hard work they have put into the proposed reauthorization efforts. Their leadership is vital to acknowledging that there is a need for insightful federal juvenile justice oriented ownership of these issues. Such leadership provides a culture of standardization regarding the developmental uniqueness of youth/adolescents across the country, and a belief that despite their mistakes our youth are worth investing in (and protecting) using the highest quality science and programs available. Let’s support them moving forward on the reauthorization work by continuing to advocate for empirically proven practices, community based and prevention-focused strategies that have shown themselves cost beneficial as well as effective in achieving policy and consumer outcomes. Such strategies include helping communities to nurture families in culturally relevant, proactive ways as well as delivering community-based practices shown to truly make positive differences.

How to Gain Meaning and Purpose from Ferguson, MO and Michael Brown’s Tragedy

It would presumptuous to claim earth shattering insights from all the social, community and family dynamics occurring as a result of Michael Brown’s unfortunate, premature death. The world has been watching Missouri and the United States, trying to make sense of it all. Many questions will go unanswered, many more will be answered in partial or full justification of the acts that have taken place during and after the shooting. So many “issues”, so many “problems” — but what about so many opportunities?

We should not let this heightened awareness of the differences in values, history, perceptions, experiences and cultures go into the void of unlearned lessons. Has there been a better opportunity for an active and compassionate dialogue on race and culture? Why can’t we use Michael’s legacy (and Trayvon’s, and  ………) as a springboard toward a systematic examination of how various families, communities and cultures cope with life and violence in America? Why can’t we finally and courageously talk about gun violence – both in “sanctioned” forms and criminal acts? What more will it take for our country to confront the contradictions and inexplicable tolerance we have for the daily loss of life among our children and youth – especially children of color? And what about those that are asked to use guns in their daily roles to protect us? Are the ground rules changing? Are there standards of behavior and expectations of civility that are universal (or should be) so that public safety officers better understand true danger from other forms of threat?

Our juvenile justice and public policy leaders should be at the forefront on these issues. We are at the national boiling point for race relations and person-on-person confrontations exacerbated by our continued head-in-the-sand approach to understanding why these problems persist. Juvenile justice leadership stands at a critical crossroads of family and public services, often walking that delicate balance of treatment/habilitation and punishment. Isn’t that the same balance that many others try to achieve? Law enforcement? School officials? Parents?

Let’s start a national movement led by leaders with vision who are unafraid to have the hard conversations. But let’s also have some ground rules:

  • Race matters …and privilege is something that has to be better understood by everyone
  • However, privilege is not a justification for taking an antisocial or uncooperative path through society – blaming whites is just as problematic as blaming African-Americans, Latino/Hispanic folks, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, LBGTQ, etc.
  • Our institutions were created by power-oriented folks that controlled resources—and still do. Our national conversation should acknowledge the roles that power and resources play in intentionally or unintentionally oppressing others (no matter the race, ethnicity or class).
  • Capitalism and economic policy in our country have increasingly created groups of “winners” and “losers” – there is no answer to a system that rewards the winners with growing resources and marginalizes the “losers”. We have to find a better solution to the distribution of wealth and opportunity if this country is to survive and thrive in the decades ahead. This IS NOT socialism, it is pragmatism …we can see it coming, but the political and polemic chasm between parties obviates a reasonable conversation about fixes.
  • Our nation was founded on “independence, liberty and justice for all” according to our national pledge. One of our golden rules ought to be the creation of communities where health, family and youth resilience and values associated with true social justice should be at the top of the requirements for holding political office ….we should get our rear-ends to the ballot boxes and elect candidates that truly stand for these values and not just give them passing attention.

So let’s get talking, organizing, trusting and most importantly, caring for each other. The social alienation of poverty and class separation are tough enough without gun violence and racism in the conversation. Working families now more than ever are struggling to raise children with values of fairness and optimism, when that isn’t their daily experience. It’s up to you and me ….. let’s commit to making this part of our daily walk. For those old enough to remember Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “….how many more, how many more?”.