Why We’re Expanding JDAI’s Focus

Posted April 5, 2012
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog whywereexpandingjdaifocus 2012

Richard Ross for Juvenile in Justice

Winds of change are blow­ing strong­ly in juve­nile jus­tice. Iron­i­cal­ly, giv­en the Unit­ed States’ unique embrace of mass incar­cer­a­tion as the key to pub­lic safe­ty, the move­ment for fun­da­men­tal change in juve­nile jus­tice is fueled pri­mar­i­ly by prac­ti­tion­ers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, com­mu­ni­ty activists, and researchers focused on reduc­ing con­fine­ment. An obvi­ous trend to lim­it juve­nile incar­cer­a­tion has emerged in the past decade. The (almost 150) juris­dic­tions that par­tic­i­pate in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI), for exam­ple, have reduced reliance on local deten­tion by an aver­age of 41 per­cent and low­ered com­mit­ments to state cor­rec­tions facil­i­ties by approx­i­mate­ly one-third. A grow­ing num­ber of states, led by California’s astound­ing drop of almost 85 per­cent over the past decade, have reduced youth incar­cer­a­tion dramatically.

We think that this move­ment away from whole­sale reliance on con­fin­ing juve­niles is not mere­ly promis­ing: It is essen­tial to a future juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem that suc­cess­ful­ly redi­rects youth and improves pub­lic safe­ty. Why? At least four rea­sons seem relevant.

First, incar­cer­a­tion is where the mon­ey is. As long as states spend the lion’s share of lim­it­ed juve­nile jus­tice funds on con­fine­ment, dreams of bet­ter pre­ven­tion and ear­ly inter­ven­tion will remain unful­filled. How else, for exam­ple, can we scale up evi­dence-based inter­ven­tions so that more than the cur­rent scant 5 per­cent of eli­gi­ble youth actu­al­ly receive them?

Sec­ond, as the best recent dein­car­cer­a­tion efforts have demon­strat­ed, safe­ly reduc­ing con­fine­ment depends on mul­ti­ple, inter­con­nect­ed reforms that alter pol­i­cy and prac­tice up and down the case pro­cess­ing con­tin­u­um. We can’t change incar­cer­a­tion just by adding pro­grams to the dis­po­si­tion­al end of the sys­tem. Reduc­ing incar­cer­a­tion demands com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem reform, includ­ing lim­it­ing which cas­es require for­mal court involve­ment, improv­ing com­mu­ni­ty super­vi­sion, and imple­ment­ing data-dri­ven, struc­tured deci­sion mak­ing. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly lim­it­ing incar­cer­a­tion will force such changes.

Third, reduc­ing incar­cer­a­tion will unleash cre­ativ­i­ty that juve­nile jus­tice has been miss­ing. Incar­cer­a­tion is a safe­ty net for sys­tem prac­ti­tion­ers. When all else fails—when kids vio­late pro­ba­tion rules, con­tin­ue to mis­be­have despite treat­ment refer­rals, abscond from lousy group homes—there’s always an option: lock them up, even though they will be back in the com­mu­ni­ty rel­a­tive­ly soon. What would hap­pen if that option were great­ly restrict­ed? What new approach­es and inno­va­tions would prac­ti­tion­ers invent?

Final­ly, juve­nile jus­tice trans­for­ma­tion trig­gered by reduced reliance on con­fine­ment will increase account­abil­i­ty for results that real­ly matter—whether the kids are bet­ter off and whether pub­lic safe­ty has improved—rather than the short-sight­ed process mea­sures nor­mal­ly report­ed. As things now stand, the sys­tem links suc­cess, or fail­ure, to admis­sions to deten­tion or cor­rec­tions; to suc­cess­ful pro­ba­tion ter­mi­na­tions; to resti­tu­tion col­lect­ed and urine tests failed. These are not irrel­e­vant indi­ca­tors, but they are poor sub­sti­tutes for what’s real­ly impor­tant: whether kids are well-behaved, learn­ing, con­nect­ed to the labor mar­ket, pre­pared to be con­tribut­ing mem­bers to fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. The cur­rent sys­tem is large­ly unac­count­able for whether the well-being of the youth it works with has improved. But, if it can’t incar­cer­ate them, it will have to work to improve those outcomes.

By expand­ing the focus of JDAI to include the system’s deep end,” the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion believes that, 10 years from now, we could eas­i­ly find half as many youth incar­cer­at­ed as today. Though our juve­nile incar­cer­a­tion rate would still far exceed com­pa­ra­ble nations, this down­siz­ing will be a pro­found move in the right direc­tion, set­ting the stage for reform­ers to shift their focus from get­ting the sys­tem to do less harm to help­ing the sys­tem do good.”

This col­umn is excerpt­ed from a longer essay in To Build a Bet­ter Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Sys­tem,” recent­ly pub­lished by The Sen­tenc­ing Project and is avail­able at www​.sen​tenc​ing​pro​ject​.org.

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