The Nate Balis Interview

Posted June 2, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog Introducing Nate Balis 2014

In ear­ly April, the Foun­da­tion announced that Nate Balis would assume the posi­tion of direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group when Bart Lubow retires at the end of June. Balis has worked at the Foun­da­tion since 2007 and brings more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence in juve­nile jus­tice, social pol­i­cy, research, eval­u­a­tion and sys­tem reform.

In a recent inter­view, Balis high­light­ed the impor­tance of help­ing sys­tems see chil­dren in their care as dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from adults and list­ed that as one of his major goals. He also shared the fol­low­ing insights dur­ing a recent Q&A session.

What is your vision for the Foundation’s juve­nile jus­tice work in the near future?

Nate Balis

Build­ing on more than 20 years of suc­cess with the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI), I believe the Foun­da­tion and our col­leagues in the JDAI net­work are well-posi­tioned to go wider and deep­er. We will con­tin­ue to focus on bring­ing JDAI strate­gies and JDAI prin­ci­ples to scale with­in states, but we will also work to pro­mote an expand­ed focus of JDAI toward safe­ly reduc­ing post-dis­po­si­tion­al con­fine­ment. We know chil­dren have the best chance at suc­cess when they grow up in fam­i­lies — not insti­tu­tions. This is an oppor­tune time for the Foun­da­tion and our sys­tem part­ners to invest in what will help sup­port those successes.

What’s your long-term vision of success?

First and fore­most, the Foun­da­tion not only envi­sions far few­er young peo­ple con­fined in cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties and oth­er out-of-home place­ment, but also the dis­man­tling of the failed youth prison or train­ing school” mod­el that still dom­i­nates the deep end of our juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. The long-term vision is also for our sys­tem to rebuild itself with fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties at the core and to pro­mote a youth devel­op­ment approach that works to help all young peo­ple reach their poten­tial. Sys­tems have achieved this in pieces, but see­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties as the answer instead of the prob­lem, and see­ing the young peo­ple who touch our sys­tem as resources — like we would our own chil­dren — is a major shift.

Bart Lubow has been a tremen­dous part of dri­ving juve­nile jus­tice reforms. How do you intend to build on the lega­cy he leaves?

Bart has not only shaped all of the Foundation’s juve­nile jus­tice work over the past two decades, but he has also been and remains one of the most impor­tant voic­es in the field. He is very much part of why I came to Casey and it has been a great priv­i­lege to work close­ly with him. I ben­e­fit from the ground­work, from our large net­work of part­ners around the coun­try and from an incred­i­bly strong team that remains here at the Foun­da­tion — a team uni­fied in the belief that all kids can achieve and that con­fin­ing kids should be a last resort.

Juve­nile crime is at a 40-year low, JDAI is now in more than 250 sites in 39 states across the coun­try, a grow­ing body of research around ado­les­cent brain devel­op­ment con­firms the posi­tion that chil­dren — even those exhibit­ing dan­ger­ous behav­iors — are indeed dif­fer­ent from adults, and there is mount­ing data demon­strat­ing that alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion are a bet­ter bet than con­fine­ment — bet­ter for kids and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty. I will build on Bart’s lega­cy by tak­ing advan­tage of the com­ing togeth­er of these fac­tors to fur­ther push for­ward the reforms that improve our juve­nile jus­tice system.

What do you see as one of the great­est bar­ri­ers in advanc­ing the reform agenda?

We still have a long way to go in see­ing kids in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem not as per­pe­tra­tors or as vic­tims, but as young peo­ple with poten­tial. That’s how we see the chil­dren we love even when they make mis­takes. If we can see all chil­dren this way, we will be more focused on what sys­tems can do to help kids become suc­cess­ful adults.

How will your approach to grantees be different?

Our most impor­tant rela­tion­ships are the ones we have with our part­ners who work in states and coun­ties around the coun­try. That’s our pri­ma­ry invest­ment and that is not going to change — nor will our goal of always look­ing for ways to pro­vide even more effec­tive and effi­cient sup­ports to our sites.

How do you see tra­di­tion­al JDAI and the new work aimed at reduc­ing post-dis­po­si­tion­al con­fine­ment intersecting?

Cer­tain­ly the suc­cess we have seen with JDAI over the years has helped us iden­ti­fy oth­er ways to strength­en and build on our over­all efforts to reform the sys­tem. Our work to move JDAI to state scale is about how we can help states to build the nec­es­sary capac­i­ty to expand JDAI to all of their coun­ties — while main­tain­ing the integri­ty of JDAI and con­tin­u­ing to improve out­comes for kids.

Our focus on the deep end of the sys­tem is a log­i­cal out-growth of work­ing to reduce all types of out-of home place­ments in a way that goes beyond deten­tion. Our country’s rate of youth con­fine­ment remains stub­born­ly high and com­plete­ly at odds with the rest of the world, even fol­low­ing the recent nation­al and state trends toward reduced incar­cer­a­tion. Racial dis­par­i­ties at the deep end of the sys­tem — both with respect to the num­bers and in the way that we respond to youth with sim­i­lar behav­ior — are fre­quent­ly worse than in deten­tion. The Foun­da­tion has always seen JDAI as an entry-point strat­e­gy — not as all-encom­pass­ing sys­tem reform, but a start­ing point. JDAI sites are the per­fect lab­o­ra­to­ry for inno­va­tion through­out the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem and we expect to learn from and inform our sites about promis­ing prac­tices, poli­cies and pro­grams in the years ahead.

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