Five Questions with Casey: Bart Lubow and Reducing Reliance on Youth Detention

Posted March 5, 2013

Bart LubowFor more than 20 years, Bart Lubow has led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI), an ambi­tious effort to demon­strate that juris­dic­tions can reduce reliance on secure deten­tion with­out sac­ri­fic­ing pub­lic safety.

As direc­tor of Casey’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group, Lubow also guides efforts to improve out­comes for young peo­ple who enter the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem and to reduce dis­par­i­ties in the treat­ment of young peo­ple of color.

Lubow began his career in crim­i­nal jus­tice as a social work­er for New York City’s Legal Aid Soci­ety and served as direc­tor of Alter­na­tives to Incar­cer­a­tion for New York State before join­ing the Foun­da­tion in 1992.

Q1. The Foun­da­tion recent­ly report­ed that youth con­fine­ment is at an all-time low. Were you sur­prised by this trend in recent years?

We knew that sites involved in JDAI were dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduc­ing their reliance on deten­tion and place­ments in cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties. We also knew through Casey’s strate­gic con­sult­ing work that a num­ber of oth­er states have reduced their num­bers of con­fined youth as well. While we weren’t sur­prised by the over­all num­bers nation­al­ly, we were very pleased to see that the trend is almost uni­ver­sal across the coun­try, with 44 states report­ing sub­stan­tial decreas­es in youth con­fine­ment.

Q2. Why do you think the incar­cer­a­tion rate for youth has dropped, and what’s the significance?

The reduc­tions reflect a con­ver­gence of fac­tors. First, we have learned a lot over the past two decades about what does and doesn’t work to change juve­nile behav­ior. The research shows that putting kids into deten­tion increas­es the risks of recidi­vism at a huge cost to tax­pay­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, we have learned that ado­les­cents don’t think like adults, so some of the basic puni­tive notions upon which juve­nile incar­cer­a­tion is based don’t actu­al­ly make sense. When you place low-risk pop­u­la­tions with high-risk pop­u­la­tions, the for­mer typ­i­cal­ly come out with a greater chance of recidivism.

Sec­ond, Casey is see­ing a vibrant move­ment to reduce reliance on incar­cer­a­tion, in part due to JDAI and some state-spe­cif­ic reform endeav­ors. Juris­dic­tions of all polit­i­cal shapes and sizes are chal­leng­ing the system’s reliance on con­fine­ment and pro­mot­ing best prac­tices to end it.

Fis­cal hard times also have been a cat­a­lyst, since the lion’s share of fund­ing for juve­nile jus­tice comes from state and local gov­ern­ments that have been strug­gling might­i­ly since the recession.

Final­ly, there is no doubt that the sus­tained decrease in juve­nile crime over the past 15 years has cre­at­ed space for more ratio­nal dis­cus­sion about what’s smart on crime rather than tough. The num­bers dis­pel the myth that lock­ing up few­er kids would unleash a juve­nile crime wave.

Q3. What are some essen­tial fac­tors in safe­ly reduc­ing reliance on juve­nile deten­tion and incar­cer­a­tion, and who is doing a good job?

Chang­ing the val­ues, poli­cies and prac­tices under­ly­ing the sys­tem is the key. You can’t append good pro­grams to inef­fec­tive sys­tems and expect to get dif­fer­ent out­comes. If you don’t have sys­temic poli­cies and prac­tices aligned with new pro­grams, you won’t do a good job of iden­ti­fy­ing the young peo­ple who would have been incar­cer­at­ed. It’s not just about fund­ing more alter­na­tive pro­grams; you don’t want to fill these pro­grams with kids who wouldn’t have gone on to incar­cer­a­tion anyway.

Q4. What are some places that have adopt­ed these kinds of approaches?

Many local sites par­tic­i­pat­ing in JDAI are doing this well. They focus—first and foremost—on chang­ing the behav­ior of the adults who work in and man­age the sys­tem, which results in impor­tant shifts in val­ues, poli­cies and prac­tices. At the state lev­el, Ohio and Con­necti­cut are good exam­ples of what this type of change looks like. Ohio has pro­vid­ed fis­cal incen­tives for coun­ty courts to keep kids at home or in local pro­grams, so they rad­i­cal­ly reduced the num­bers in state con­fine­ment. Con­necti­cut imple­ment­ed evi­dence-based pro­grams that have pro­duced bet­ter results in terms of recidi­vism and ado­les­cent risk-tak­ing behav­ior. As a result, incar­cer­a­tion rates and juve­nile offend­ing rates have gone down.

Q5. How can we address ongo­ing dis­par­i­ties in how youth of col­or are treat­ed by the juve­nile jus­tice system?

We must ensure that sys­tems pro­vide a lev­el play­ing field in which all kids are treat­ed equal­ly, regard­less of race or eth­nic­i­ty, and that they can respond to the par­tic­u­lar needs and cir­cum­stances of the young peo­ple who come to them. Juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems need to be more inten­tion­al about efforts to dig deeply and root out the sources of dis­parate treat­ment. They need to do a much bet­ter job of engag­ing com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and the youth and fam­i­lies involved in the system.

Juris­dic­tions seri­ous about reform must first col­lect data to describe who they are con­fin­ing, why they are being con­fined and their out­comes. Stake­hold­ers need to talk about what con­fine­ment is being used for and whether it is accom­plish­ing its intend­ed goal. Most impor­tant, sys­tems must treat kids who come to court the way we would want our own chil­dren to be treated.

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