Congressional Briefing Panelists Continue the Discussion on Community-Based Alternatives - Article Details

Congressional Briefing Panelists Continue the Discussion on Community-Based Alternatives

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On September 10, 2014, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) co-hosted the briefing, "Building Safe and Strong Communities: A Conversation about Community-Based Alternatives for Juvenile Justice Involved Youth."

To continue the discussion started at the briefing, the four panel members participated in a follow up Q&A to further explore community based alternatives for juvenile justice youth.

As a juvenile court judge, you have the important responsibility to protect public safety. What did you do, or what helped you the most to address that public safety risk while helping more kids in the community, and use youth incarceration less and less?

We used the research and the facts to lead the discussion. After assuring the community partners that the Court had no intention of compromising community safety, we began the process of looking at detention alternatives in the community to implement. Law enforcement plays a significant role.

As we found gaps in alternatives, we began to look at program development to meet the need of keeping the youth in the community while not compromising community safety while their matters are pending. We developed the different levels of community control beginning with a daily reporting center concept to a monitored form of house arrest.

This process next translated to our efforts to look at alternatives to incarceration when an adjudicated delinquent felony offending youth was facing long term incarceration. The Juvenile Sex Offender Treatment Program was developed based upon research and evidence-based programming using this model.(highly successful). When making dispositional orders, the question from the bench becomes, "Can this youth be maintained in the community with services to meet his/her needs and keep the community safe?"

Obviously you’ve led some pretty remarkable reforms in Lucas County. What lessons would you have for others in your position to lead similar change?

The Court, service providers, community members, attorneys and law enforcement, victims advocates and other community members must be given the research and information coming available every day about youth development, validated screening and assessment tools, need to engage families, reducing risk factors related to recidivism, such as truancy, unaddressed behavioral health issues, quality programming and interventions.

Create a continuum of community-based services to address a youth's particular needs without compromising safety. Allow the community to give feedback, partner with the Court and come to consensus on what is important to the community. Emphasize that youth always come home when incarcerated. It makes more sense to work with the youth in the community to improve the likelihood of positive outcomes when public safety is not compromised. Cognitive based interventions are a must. And, be true to your word with the community and families. There must be an honest conversation about minority disproportionality.

The goal should be to treat all youth in the same fashion you would expect your child to be treated.

You said you reduced youth incarceration in Lucas County. How did you pay for the community-based programs? Was it through redirecting dollars from beds to community? grants? a combination?

Dollars should follow the youth. Redirecting dollars saved by the decreased detention population to programming allows the youth to engage in meaningful and effective community intervention without compromising public safety. Ohio Juvenile Courts have the opportunity to use RECLAIM Ohio dollars to implement programming to avoid youth from committment to the Ohio Department of Youth Services. Use grant funding and technical assistance to insure that the programming is not hurting kids or having no or little impact on changing behavior (e.g. scared straight programs) but creates positive outcomes for youth and families. Develop partnerships with stakeholders and others to address risk factors causing further entrenchment in the school to prison pipeline, such as truancy, school misbehavior, and violence (e.g. diversion programs).

In your report, you also included comments from kids around the country who had been in the juvenile justice system. Can you share a little about what they said?

Yes. We created a survey with some key questions and asked kids in YAP juvenile justice programs if they’d be willing to share their perspectives to help us with putting together a solutions-based report. One of the recommendations in the report is that any intervention for kids should include opportunities for them to have voice, choice and ownership in what happens to them. So we thought it made sense to include what they think in the final report. Their feedback was so enriching.

Overwhelmingly, they asked us to just listen to them. The second most common comment was to not judge them -- to understand that not all kids are the same, and sometimes there are reasons a kid acts out. Now, we have an opportunity to rethink policies and practices that don’t create space for listening to the kids we want to help, and those policies and practices that prioritize judging kids over taking the time to really understand them.

Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say “anything that is done in an institution can be done in the community, only better”?

If you think about it, institutions offer very little, so it is not a stretch to see how a supported community can do everything an institution can, only better. Other than 24-hour confinement and separation from family and community, the only other function of your prison is punishment.

So, if a kid is locked up because the court has determined that he needs 24-hour supervision, let’s think outside of the box and find a way to pay social workers or street workers (like a YAP Advocate or a CURE Violence Interrupter) to work in shifts and literally be with the youth for 24 hours to make sure he complies with a mandate that requires him to stay home.

If a youth has behavioral troubles that cause her to act out at school, let’s sit in the school with her, to be there and help keep her calm; or if a kid isn’t attending school, rather than incarcerate for truancy, let’s find out what’s wrong and then get the right help for each specific kid who needs it.

The thing about working with kids in the community is that you develop relationships with kids and their families; you learn if they have a history of trauma and can recognize triggers, and aim to predict crises before they happen and plan for when they do happen. We can build individualized service plans that address accountability and also meet the unique unmet needs of each youth, and identify and build on individual strengths, too. And maybe most importantly, in the community we can support the youth’s family too; institutions strain families and a youth’s connection to his or her family. We just created a neat infographic that described the difference between community and prison.

Sometimes we will hear that kids can’t be safely in the community because their families are “bad” or because administrators feel they’re better off or safer in an institution than at home. What is your response to that?

One definition of family is a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group whether dwelling together or not: the traditional family. We all have different interpretations of everything. Life and it's experiences! Reality is subjective.

How we define ourselves and our families situations are also subjective. What does the ideal family look like? What does the "dysfunctional family" look like? My family may look dysfunctional to you and yours to me. When people say “we can’t send that kid home because his family is dysfunctional,” I often want to say, isn’t yours dysfunctional?

It is convenient for institutions to group or categorize families as "unfit or bad." It is even easier to convict and condemn these children for a lack of understanding them. The standards are sometimes unrealistic for people with disadvantages, and when they fall a little short of the expectations we have for ourselves, we condemn them.

Family is the most important part of our society and our society has helped destroy the most important part of itself. There are no benefits to incarceration other than punishment. It directly serves an underlying need to ease our fears. People will run back to their family good or bad, fit or unfit. Many of these kids are products of their environments. What are they learning in jail? Isn't a less restrictive setting more ideal for learning? The investment should be made in the communities, because at the end of the day the kids are returning to these communities.

What is the one thing you’d want people to know about the kids and communities you work with?

The kids and families in these communities are resilient. They are up against all sorts of odds and still fight to survive. They are living under third world conditions. The violence and crimes are symptoms of larger societal issues. The people are being warehoused in jails, and are currently having two wars waged against them simultaneously. The black and brown youth are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. The families are frustrated and experience hopelessness at times.

But the kids are still kids! They have hopes and dreams too! Some of these kids are little miracles. Most adults haven't been exposed to the levels of poverty and violence these kids have, unless you're a veteran. To overcome some of these almost insurmountable odds, PTSD, mass incarceration, rampant violence, racism, and not necessarily in that order, is really amazing. These people and families have dreams and aspirations too. The system has created a situation where the American dream is only privy to certain Americans.

The numbers you talked about regarding the continuing racial disparity, despite declining youth incarceration, are striking. How can community-based programs that prioritize cultural competence be effective in helping reduce youth incarceration for kids of color?

First, we know that there are many kids of color who should not be in the juvenile justice system at all. Behavioral surveys show that youth, across race, behave in similar ways.

Unfortunately, kids of color are more likely to be arrested, detained, and incarcerated for behavior that white children in white communities are not being punished for. Of course, there are still some kids of color who are in the system for serious crimes. It is these youth who need the types of programming identified in the YAP report, “Safely Home."

Effective community based programming staffed by culturally competent staff - adults who have grown up in the same neighborhoods--fundamentally shapes youths’ outcomes.

These programs don’t simply reduce recidivism and other juvenile justice outcomes. When you walk in the door of these programs, you can see the transformation happen in front of your eyes. You can see young people shift from being isolated in their own experience into joining a cadre of community leaders committed to system change.

What is needed to ensure the development of culturally competent programming in communities of color?

I believe the roles of what we informally call “bills and budgets” are crucial in building a continuum of community based services.

As systems downsize and reinvest money into community supervision, we need legislation that requires set asides for culturally competent community-based programs.

Advocates should also work to create funding streams for programs as well as training for system stakeholders and parents on how to collaborate with one another. Locally, probation, police, public defender, and district attorney offices should also develop RFPs and subcontracts that require programs to be staffed with culturally competent community members.


Media/Press Inquiries

Ryanne Persinger,
National Communications Director

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