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the age of juvenile jurisdiction in his January 2014 State of the State address, stating “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated….It’s not right; it’s not fair.”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.

In September 2013, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released a comprehensive survey report (Law Enforcement’s Leadership Role in the Advancement of Promising Practices in Juvenile Justice — Executive Officer Survey Findings) supported by the MacArthur Foundation. It is nice work and illustrative of baseline information from which future efforts can be measured. There are many conclusions in the report and a lot of morsels to chew upon – too many for a full review in this post. The focus here is on a couple of findings in the report.

Most glaring to me is the finding that overwhelmingly the majority of law enforcement leaders perceive the juvenile justice system to be ineffective.  Law enforcement leaders agree that there should be a separate legal system for juveniles; yet their perceptions of the current system are not positive. According to the study, the majority of respondents perceive the juvenile justice system as generally lacking responsive, effective and rehabilitative impacts. There are other issues (problems) noted including problems with information sharing, not being involved in key decision making, a need for more (and more effective) diversion programs, along with wishes to be more engaged as leaders in their local juvenile justice systems.

If you asked a youth and/or their caretaker(s) involved in the juvenile justice system to identify which agencies make up the juvenile justice system, my bet would be that their responses would include local law enforcement. Kids and their families see the arresting/petitioning officer as those deciding initial criminality or blame. In my experience communities often identify law enforcement as the first step in the juvenile justice system. Yet professionals among the agencies working with these families see things differently. This is a fault line that needs immediate attention. I’ve worked around the behavioral health, child welfare and juvenile justice systems for over 30 years. It is beautiful when everyone collaborates and wraps themselves around a youth – holding youth accountable, teaching skills, engaging families, taking care of victims, and ensuring that the public is safe. Yet it is not so nice when agencies do not collaborate, don’t share a vision for how things should work and then begin to cast blame when things do not go well. Unfortunately, the IACP survey seems to imply that law enforcement leaders view themselves as outside of the juvenile justice system and therefore not a part of an integrated solution. Clearly they are not (as agencies) subsumed within the juvenile justice system but certainly if planned and implemented well, juvenile officers within law enforcement can and should be strategically integrated into effective local juvenile justice systems.

Social science has demonstrated that child/youth competencies and resilience are most effectively built through integration of services and resources. Any services provided that do not integrate community-based resources in consistently effective ways are less impactful (and can actually be harmful). Knowing this challenges us to find ways to make law enforcement professionals a more integrated component within the juvenile justice system. Doing so will increase their ownership in the shared outcomes of any work on behalf of youths entering the system as well as juvenile justice professionals’ engagement in law enforcement’s responsibilities — thus increasing overall system effectiveness. This starts with questioning the vision, mission, objectives and strategies of both systems (law enforcement as well as juvenile justice) and coming to common agreement as to the roles and responsibilities required of each agency. These roles must complement and integrate rather than work in silos or as partial collaborations. Yes, we’ll have to tackle the age-old debate of how much “punishment” is needed versus how much habilitation or rehabilitation may be required at the macro level as well as on case-by-case bases. But until we agree on what an optimal juvenile justice system should look like and then provide the training and other resources to ensure effective integration of services (in this context, law enforcement investigations and other activities are thought of as services), we’ll continue to find plenty of fault(s) with each agency responsible for various components. Any of you that have been around know that it is all too common for one agency to find fault with another when things don’t go well (e.g., blaming schools, families/parents, the police, courts, mental health, substance abuse, case manager, etc.). We need our leadership in law enforcement and juvenile justice to make this happen. There are enough challenges outside of the juvenile justice system bearing down on vulnerable families – we don’t need to increase fragmentation by our lack of consensus and integration of efforts.

There now exists sufficient scientific research and fiscal evaluation confirming that evidence-based practices in the areas of prevention (e.g., youth violence and crime, adolescent pregnancy, substance abuse, early childhood education, housing and even national defense) and various clinical interventions can and do save dollars as well as achieve better consumer and/or public safety outcomes. There are lots of reasons both documented and suspected as to why this is so. True evidence-supported practices are usually developed in smaller settings, with controlled samples, sufficient budgetary resources along with high degrees of quality training and delivery in their implementation. Bringing them to scale in larger populations and settings has always been a challenge as well as understanding the roles of culture, race, ethnicity and other variables in their relevance. Much effort has gone into translational and implementation science, as well as transdisiplinary research to bring into awareness the key drivers of success when implementing EBP’s.

A missing ingredient in the articulation of “what works” is a clear and practical definition of engagement so that research-to-practice scholars can develop and target specific interventions that (1) truly help those delivering services better engage youth, families and communities; and (2) help those delivering services to know it when they see it (including the measurement of engagement from start to finish). In the November 2013 American Journal of Community Psychology, Pullman et al. document a very innovative action research approach that actually involves the very youth affected by the issues toward the conceptual and practical definition of engagement —   I encourage you to read it as it helps put youth engagement into a conceptually clearer light. But the purpose of this post isn’t just to provide kudos to Pullman et al.; it is also to encourage the fiscal and policy “deciders” to invest more in making engagement a core focus of research as well as train both leaders and program providers in the best methods for engaging folks. And I’m talking about engaging folks at multiple levels – consumers of actual interventions; consumers of training; public policy advocates; administrators; and legislators/congressional members. Effective engagement centers on relationships that all parties feel good about; yet, there is much more to it than simply liking each other. Trust, history, attitudes, mutual empowerment, and fitting into the relevant social context all matter (as Pullman et al. demonstrate).

When one participates in social problem solving, there is always a lot of finger pointing – “those kids”, “those parents”, “if the schools would just…..”, “if the government would just…..”. And yes there are justifiable concerns on all fronts. But we will never solve our problems by blaming others or rationalizing our mistakes or inadequacies at their expense. We must invest our resources toward figuring out and delivering culturally and contextually more effective methods for including persons of every community affected by the issues in finding solutions that are relevant and effective within the contexts of their lives. Without more effective engagement strategies we can have all the “best” programs in the world but not a strong way to engage those that need or want change. There is no “if you build it they will come” effect in human services (including juvenile justice State Advisory Groups that, like many other entities hunger for effective tools to help their states). In fact policy makers use the traditional failures of this approach to partially justify their avoidance in investing additional dollars toward prevention programming. We must call on our federal leaders (and other supporters of research) to find interagency and transdisciplinary funding for applied research and high quality training that will get us better engaged with our customers. I would even argue that we should put engagement of key stakeholders in the forefront of training efforts moving forward (prioritize it at least for the short term) even as we train others in program and other strategic innovations. Then we owe it to ourselves to learn all that we can as leaders or practitioners to make sure that we’ve got the very best that research has taught us in our toolboxes — in the end, consumers (customers) don’t care as much about our pedigrees; they care about our abilities to relate to their problems and to apply our techniques/tools to solving their issues in ways that truly change their lives for the better.