Reflections on Juvenile Justice Reform from Bart Lubow

Posted June 2, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog Reflectionsfrom Bart Lubow 2014

In 1991, when I joined the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion to design and man­age the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI), I was a dis­heart­ened refugee from adult crim­i­nal jus­tice reform wars, hav­ing end­ed an almost decade-long run as the direc­tor of alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion for a large state whose jail and prison pop­u­la­tions rose inex­orably despite the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pro­grams we put in place. As dispir­it­ed as I was about the qual­i­ty of jus­tice in our coun­try, I was com­plete­ly unpre­pared for what I found dur­ing my first years of expo­sure to the nation’s juve­nile jus­tice systems.

Bart LubowIn the ear­ly 1990s, juve­nile jus­tice was sim­ply reel­ing. A spike in vio­lent crimes by kids result­ed in sting­ing pub­lic crit­i­cisms that the sys­tem nei­ther deterred crime nor reha­bil­i­tat­ed way­ward youth. State leg­is­la­tures almost uni­form­ly passed bills that removed the most seri­ous cas­es from the juris­dic­tion of juve­nile courts. Tra­di­tion­al pro­tec­tions, like con­fi­den­tial­i­ty, came under attack and, in many places, were lost. Numer­ous reports doc­u­ment­ed the dis­mal state of indi­gent juve­nile defense ser­vices, pro­vid­ing sober­ing evi­dence that the kan­ga­roo court decried by the U.S. Supreme Court in In re Gault had large­ly sur­vived. Some prac­ti­tion­ers embraced tough on crime” rhetoric and tried to mim­ic the prac­tices of their adult coun­ter­parts (as if the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem was not vul­ner­a­ble to the very same crit­i­cisms). Juve­nile deten­tion and cor­rec­tions pop­u­la­tions soared. Racial dis­par­i­ties in the use of con­fine­ment increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Bud­gets became increas­ing­ly dis­tort­ed, with mil­lions of tax­pay­er dol­lars flushed down the incar­cer­a­tion drain.

Twen­ty-two years lat­er, as I end my tenure at the helm of JDAI, I am heart­ened to observe how rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent the land­scape looks. New knowl­edge, impas­sioned pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy and great­ly improved sys­tem prac­tices have trans­formed juve­nile jus­tice from a laugh­ing stock to the lead­ing edge of jus­tice sys­tem reform. We have strong evi­dence about devel­op­men­tal dif­fer­ences between juve­niles and adults and impli­ca­tions for how we respond to crim­i­nal behav­ior. We have com­pelling cri­tiques of juve­nile con­fine­ment and evi­dence-based pro­grams that can serve as effec­tive alter­na­tives. We have col­leagues lead­ing con­ver­sa­tions about racial equi­ty in the jus­tice sys­tem and help­ing stake­hold­ers to iden­ti­fy sources of dis­par­i­ties and solu­tions. We have fam­i­lies chal­leng­ing sys­tems to be engag­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tive. And we have knowl­edge about how to stim­u­late, stage, sus­tain and scale com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem reform.

In terms of quan­tifi­able changes, noth­ing is more illus­tra­tive of juve­nile justice’s trans­for­ma­tion than the reduc­tions of youth in con­fine­ment, for which JDAI sites deserve much cred­it. Col­lec­tive­ly, JDAI sites have reduced their local deten­tion pop­u­la­tions by 44 per­cent, dri­ving deten­tion lev­els down nation­al­ly by almost one-third. JDAI sites have reduced com­mit­ments to youth cor­rec­tions facil­i­ties by a sim­i­lar per­cent­age. Con­se­quent­ly, as we con­vene for the annu­al JDAI con­fer­ence (held June 24, 2014), there are approx­i­mate­ly 46,000 few­er youth in cus­tody than when we began this work. In JDAI sites alone, more than 2,000 unused secure deten­tion beds have been shut­tered, free­ing up fund for com­mu­ni­ty-based pro­gram­ming and pre­ven­tion invest­ments — with­out under­min­ing pub­lic safety.

I could cite many oth­er pos­i­tive changes and acknowl­edge oth­er con­trib­u­tors to this remark­able trans­for­ma­tion, but space does not per­mit me to do so here. I will end by acknowl­edg­ing and thank­ing sys­tem stake­hold­ers, tech­ni­cal assis­tance providers, researchers, advo­cates and activists who helped make JDAI an essen­tial influ­ence in reform­ing juve­nile jus­tice. We may have a long way to go before we have estab­lished a sys­tem that tru­ly meets the my child” test, but we have tak­en crit­i­cal first steps and won’t turn back. It has been my great priv­i­lege to share this part of the jour­ney with you. Stay deter­mined, be prin­ci­pled and keep at it! Thanks so much.

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