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.

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.

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.

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.

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?”.

 

It has become more apparent to me that the future of juvenile justice reform may rest in some of the lessons learned in the past combined with substantial evolving research that has positively influenced the field over the past 25 years (or so). Recent economic, social-demographic and political trends portend significant changes in the roles of federal investments and leadership as well as state public financing of juvenile justice systems.

What we know ——–

  • The economics of our country are dramatically shifting the middle class, downsizing it and rearranging capacities to generate tax revenues through various approaches
  • The fastest growing business entities in the country are nonprofit organizations – this dynamic portends a different corporatization of America around tax laws and the ways in which income can be managed (or sheltered). A predictable impact could be a reshaping of the national tax code so that fewer charitable deductions would be allowable and the missions of nonprofits can shift toward more business-related outcomes as opposed to charitable ones
  • Younger workers are entering the work force with increasing levels of debt; one consequence of this has to do with “strain” on family structure, dynamics, and family capability to provide for children without over-committing to additional debt
  • Conservative political and fiscal management philosophies now substantially impact state and federal spending so that appreciable future growth in juvenile justice research and programming via public financing is an unrealistic expectation. The future lies in public-private partnerships
  • The major innovation investments in juvenile justice have come via the private sector over the past decade or more
  • Our communities are more culturally, ethnically/racially and gender diverse than ever in the history of our country. This diversity creates both strengths and challenges. Finding common ground to help develop resilient, pro-social and educated youth while dealing with issues like retribution, accountability and public safety is complicated, and requires a new mainstreaming of values such that diverse groups can and would agree on core public safety and welfare values (e.g., “norms”) without marginalizing or diluting their diversities
  • Given the devolution of juvenile justice as seen in many states (through the reductions in federal and state appropriations over the past 12 years), creating systematic approaches toward positive youth development and youth accountability naturally falls into the hands of more local decision makers and investors/stakeholders

So what do I mean by the future resting in the past? It seems overly simplistic, but thinking back to some of the historically safest communities in our country, when crime rates were lower and when communities tended to hold broader agreement as to how to deal with risk-taking youth — there are nuggets that can be resurfaced and polished again.  Safe communities (research says, not just me) tend to have characteristics such as:

  • Strong and positive communications between parents, schools, social, recreational and criminal justice agencies whereby behaviors are consistently observed and reinforced or punished with shared values across organizations. This is the old “if it happened somewhere else, you have permission to correct my child and then let me know about it”.
  • Another way of saying this is the presence of known and appreciated networks, both formal and informal, for “telling the news” and helping parents and other authority figures channel information so that folks agree (in the main) on how to deal with children both positively and negatively at various points along a child’s path (home, school, community, etc.)
  • Clear values and a vision for what healthy, resilient, protected, just and equitable child rearing looks like across settings
  • Intolerance for behaviors that lead to crime: weapons, inappropriate substance use/abuse, bullying, etc.
  • Capability to respond immediately and effectively in “doses” commensurate with misbehavior when things go wrong – and not assigning the responsibility for solving problems to another organization or system
  • Extended support networks where the primary responsibilities for children remain within those networks and not delegated to other agencies or institutions
  • Stable and sufficient employment and workforce dynamics that allow for a primary focus on raising healthy families

So how do these observations frame juvenile justice reform for the future?

By sewing together lessons from the past with the scientifically generated prevention and evidence based literatures, we can begin to see patterns that predict reform system improvements. We need to redesign our youth-serving systems around parents, primary caregivers, extended family members and natural supports in their local ecologies – in contrast with the systems that we have today, where our primary formal interventions are often housed in schools, courts, and law enforcement agencies. We need to wrap developmental theory and brain development into community-based interventions and family supports in addition to the more traditional juvenile justice type settings (and fund them accordingly). We should help employers and employment systems develop flexible schedules and processes so that parents and extended family can be the primary interventionists for their children (including the creation of workforce programs and internships for youth that compliment family and community goals).  And we should invest in grassroots coalition and collaboration infrastructures instead of building more formal programming in the traditional agencies.  This isn’t to say that folks have what they need; indeed they do not and our schools, community agencies and state government systems continue to lose important budget resources. Yet, to turn this tide we must return to what works – helping to nurture effective families and family supports, empowering local informal and formal networks that agree on child rearing values and philosophies in the main, and engaging communities that “own” their human resource outcomes by virtue of their willingness to get involved and stay involved over the long-term.

Federal leadership can play a significant role in these ideas. Substantially reframing research and policy investments toward family and community engagement, community based accountability systems and evidence-based outcomes at these levels can help. Investing in new partnerships that leverage public, private and volunteer resources targeting local ecologies that require very specific outcomes, accountability within these local family and community-based networks would be very exciting. Sure the work is complicated and we know a lot about this already – both good and bad. But our kids are our kids, not the schools’ or the courts’ kids. We owe them all the innovation, flexibility, creativity and persistence that loving families and communities can generate.

2014 – wow. The time is a-aflyin’, isn’t it? So let’s get down to real business this year and reauthorize the JJDP Act. Not the baseline, compliance-focused, core requirements sort of formula that the JJDPA is known for. No, let’s re-imagine the JJDPA as perhaps JJDPA 5.0.

My ‘New Year’ wishes include many things related to vulnerable children and social justice. Somehow I hope that a dialogue catches fire as to the need to put many more resources toward supporting families, early childhood initiatives, more effective education strategies, medical and health efforts, and community engagement to help us proactively support children and families before major problems occur. But near the top of my list is a wish for federal leadership and innovation that truly engages the broad field known as juvenile justice and leverages federal, state and local resources in ways not previously imagined.

So without further adieu and in hopes that this post somehow gets part of the dialogue started, the following elements are additions/modifications to the currently proposed JJDPA reauthorization effort that I would love to see included in any future legislation. By no means is the list comprehensive.  (remember this is a blog and not a thesis):

  • More attention to creating a field-growing and cutting edge OJJDP, one that has the authority and reasonably sufficient resources to truly innovate, conduct research (or fund research), translate research into realistic program strategies, evaluate, and provide appropriate levels of training and technical assistance where needed – in addition to being “state-friendly” when dealing with compliance related concerns
  • A capability within the JJDPA that incentivizes states (e.g., affords them more dollars) to help create and maintain “practice excellence” standards for their State Advisory Groups (i.e., offer additional resources/tools/opportunities to those states that develop and sustain SAGs that actually achieve basic requirements, but also moves them toward excellence in the field). This new federal capability might include options to:
    • Include incentives to grow and leverage SAG federal dollars with other state, local and philanthropic resources to enhance their juvenile justice system networks
    • Develop and maintain a sustainable training and competency (skill-based) system for SAG members to ensure that they not only understand their basic requirements under the Act, but find ways in their states to become the effective policy and practice “voice” for vulnerable at-risk and juvenile justice involved youth as appropriate with other partners/entities
    • Include incentives from OJJDP for states (SAGs) to adopt, sustain, measure and report on the evolution of their strategies toward evidenced-supported practices. True evidence-supported practices when delivered well save money and achieve better results. Why not do this? This is better government
    • Include incentives or even hold-harmless rules/practices that allow SAGs that are in JJDPA compliance to try new ideas or programming with some portion of their federal dollars, in response to unique needs or cultural issues within their jurisdictions (in other words, keep a focus on evidence-supported practices but incentivize culturally, racially and community-relevant approaches not-yet created or delivered to the EBP literature)
    • Foster more effective partnerships with grass-roots advocacy and other agencies as they often have strong local knowledge into the dynamics driving community conditions and can really lend a hand in fostering improvements in legislative, program, and budget thinking. This needs to be a concrete expectation, in my view, moving forward as SAGs can become insular and a bit removed from various activities within the states
    • Create and maintain more integrated state-level (and local) data systems that truly help understand the unique vs. duplicated counts of youths in various juvenile justice, mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, education, and related systems –until we can accurately describe and plan for childrens’ needs in holistic ways, we often re-create bureaucratically driven efforts to help that are duplicative, expensive and cause major problems with accountability
    • A significant national and state-by-state process  for understanding how to phase out the Valid Court Order exception so that judges and law enforcement have effective alternatives that can truly be effective in lieu of juvenile detention
    • A national dialogue with concrete, measurable and actionable strategies on how to improve the conditions confronting children of color in this country. Inextricably linked to the income gap, poverty, and opportunity, this dialogue must coincide with the Concentration of Federal Efforts piece of the existing Act. It is also part and parcel to thinking of juvenile justice as youth development, not youth detainment/incarceration. We must re-label and repackage our work based on research emerging over the last few decades

So we’ll hold here and dream of these elements for now —- but if we could move our federal and congressional leadership toward thinking of the JJDPA not as more or bigger government, but as a set of tools that actually reduce government’s responsibilities to react to youth problems by engaging in science-supported ways and avoiding a reliance on interventions too late in the equation. A focus on evidence supported prevention, proven practices, true system wide quality improvement, properly funded evaluation, sustainability, effective community/family engagement, and locally efficacious systems of care guided by strong federal policy and leadership — now that would be a 2014 worth waiting for.