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

Posted March 5, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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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