Monday, November 20, 2017

Risk Takers: How did the justice system change to meet the needs of the youth population?

This blog is a part of a series dedicated to celebrate JPI’s 20th Anniversary. Bart Lubow’s piece is excerpted from comments he delivered at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s JuvenileDetention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) conference in Orlando, Florida in April 2017 on the occasion of JDAI’s 25th anniversary. JPI has been proud to partner with JDAI since its inception. We are particularly thankful to the leadership of Bart and other champions from the Casey Foundation and around the country, who made this success story possible and continue the work.

Twenty-five years ago, the juvenile justice system was struggling to survive.  It was widely condemned as soft, ineffective, and unaccountable.  Elected officials across the country, reacting to a brief spike in violent crime, ridiculed and diminished the system, most obviously by passing a slew of laws that took the most serious cases and mandated that they be prosecuted and incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. The core notion behind the creation of juvenile justice—that youth were different from adults and deserved a system that recognized those developmental differences—was at risk of being abandoned. 

For a variety of reasons juvenile justice did deserve criticism.  While it was perceived as soft on crime, juvenile justice was in fact locking up rather minor law violators—misdemeanants, probation violators and status offenders--in jails and prisons which we euphemistically called “youth study centers” and “training schools” but which were endemic with abuse and neglect like their adult counterparts.  None of this would have been allowed had the youth in question looked like, spoke like, lived near or were related to people like me.  Indeed, the collective complexion of those who were grist for this mill was darkening at a rapid rate, with more and more Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American youth being hauled before a system that routinely acted as if youth of color were all dangerous and unredeemable.

From this, the Annie E. Casey Foundation began the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. JDAI required a huge political risk, a major shift in the way we approach pretrial detention for youth, and the development of new procedures and programs to better serve America's troubled young people. We believed that the basic myth driving the incarceration explosion—that locking up large numbers of people was the pathway to public safety—was fundamentally wrong.  Second, we argued that the use of detention was driven first and foremost by the policies and practices embraced by adults, not the behavior of the kids.  Third, we hypothesized that a focus on detention reform—while limited given the many problems with juvenile justice—would spill over to affect other issues.  Finally, we argued that no system which claimed to represent “justice” could have any credibility as long as it was perceived as biased and unfair in its treatment of youth of color. 

Now there are about half as many youth locked in juvenile facilities as there were 25 years ago, and juvenile crime rates are a modest fraction of what they were as recently as 15 years ago.  If nothing else, over the past 25 years JDAI has demonstrated that it is possible to radically reduce confinement without sacrificing public safety. 

The entire trajectory of juvenile justice has changed in the past two and one-half decades.  States across the country are now raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and rolling back mandatory transfer laws, rather than pulling more youth into adult courts and prisons.  More and better tools are being used to inform decisions and stronger, more innovative alternatives have expanded the range and effectiveness of options in lieu of confinement.  At the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18 and declared mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional.  A movement to end solitary confinement has emerged with interest at the local, state and federal levels of government.  Over the past 25 years, juvenile justice, rather than retreating under criticism, has increasingly served as the laboratory for more enlightened and effective approaches to crime, some of which are now infiltrating many state adult justice systems.

While JDAI, is not responsible for all the progress of the past 25 years, it has been in the center of much of it and it at least deserves credit for forsaking the myths and excuses of the past and for helping to nourish a wide array of practitioners, advocates and researchers whose ideas and voices were hidden during the dark days of the so-called super-predator era. We have learned many things relevant to a better future, not the least of which is to not be constrained by the limits that the status quo would impose on our thinking. 

We have come very far, but not nearly far enough for this system to pass what we have come to refer to as the “my child” test.  There can be no let-up in our clamor for change, not while lives are at stake and communities suffer the effects of mass incarceration.  The clamor must now come, first and foremost, from the next generation of reformers. All enterprises of this scale and influence are built from collective, collaborative work.  All of us stand on the shoulders of others.


Bart Lubow is a Senior Consultant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation
With almost 40 years of improving criminal justice systems, Bart Lubow served as director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group from 2009 until 2014. Today, as a senior consultant, he supports the Foundation’s juvenile justice reform agenda, which includes reducing unnecessary confinement in order to minimize long-term consequences of incarceration, prevent family disruption and increase opportunities to positively alter the life trajectories of youth in the juvenile system.