December 14, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 18
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Youth Services taking a fresh look at lockup

Dan Devine

Young adults placed in detention while they await trial on criminal charges are likely to face a litany of future problems, according to a recent policy brief, and the state’s Department of Youth Services is looking for new ways to limit the fallout.

The brief, titled “The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities,” was published last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a think tank focusing on incarceration problems.

The report finds that the pretrial “jailing” of youth not yet found delinquent has a negative impact on young people’s physical and mental wellbeing, the progress of their education and their chances of getting and keeping a job.

It also suggests that the experience of being locked up may lead detained youth to continue or even increase their delinquent behavior, making it more likely that they will commit more serious crimes and end up back in the justice system.

Youth are held on bail in secure custody for two reasons: if they are considered likely to commit another offense before their trial, or if a judge determines they are not likely to appear for their trial.

“At best, detained youth are physically and emotionally separated from the families and communities who are the most invested in their recovery and success,” the brief said. “Often, detained youth are housed in overcrowded, understaffed facilities — an environment that conspires to breed neglect and violence.”

 The JPI report’s authors believe that the way to reduce the impact is to cut down the amount of people locked up inappropriately or unnecessarily, especially those that are being held for non-violent violations. The number of those detained on non-violent charges amounts to about 70 percent of the cases across the country, according to the study.

One way to accomplish that goal, explains JPI Executive Director and brief co-author Jason Ziedenberg, is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a partnership between individual public entities, like states and counties, and private nonprofit community organizations.

Created by the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992 to help reform the system and give kids the chance to develop into productive adults, JDAI has stretched to 75 jurisdictions in 19 states and Washington, D.C.

The project’s success depends on a rigorous approach that collects accurate data about where young people are in the system, what brought them there, and whether or not they are dangerous enough to require locked supervision. The data collection starts when youth are taken into custody.

“The young person presents himself. The intake person asks a bunch of questions: ‘What’s your background?’ ‘What’s your criminal history?’ ‘What have you been arrested for?’ Petty theft, petty theft, petty theft, petty theft — which is the case with most of these kids. Now, if you check off armed robbery, then you might enter a different place,” Ziedenberg said. “‘Do you have an intact family unit?’ ‘Do you have parents? Grandparents? Anyone that might be able to supervise you in an environment outside of detention?’”

By going through that checklist, he said, two groups of kids emerge — those who are a threat to themselves or others, and “the vast number of kids who don’t need to be detained.”

The numbers illustrate the initiative’s success. The JDAI site in Bernalillo County, N.M., reduced its average daily detention population by 58 percent between 1999 and 2004, while its counterpart in Santa Cruz County, Calif., experienced a 65 percent drop from 1997 to 2005.

The youth violent arrest rate fell 54 percent in Cook County, Ill., between 1993 and 2000, and juvenile felony arrests declined by 45 percent in Multnomah County, Ore., between 1994 and 2000, reductions similar to or greater than national decreases in juvenile crime.

Those statistics, coupled with the fact that participating communities have seen an improvement in the number of young people who appear in court after they have been released from detention, have led experts to say that JDAI accomplishes what it sets out to do: reducing the need for detention without compromising public safety.

Based on those results, Massachusetts is now adopting the JDAI model.

The state Department of Youth Services (DYS) announced last month it would launch JDAI pilot sites in Worcester and Suffolk counties, a move that DYS Commissioner Jane Tewksbury said would lead to “better solutions” in the department’s quest to protect public safety and effect positive change in the lives of young people in the system.

Last year, about 6,000 kids were put in secure detention by DYS. But only 20 percent of them, roughly 1,200 kids, actually wound up getting committed to DYS — meaning that the department takes physical custody of the child in a residential or secure program — after their trials. The other 80 percent could go a number of routes, such as being found not guilty or placed on probation, according to DYS spokesperson Mary Sylva.

On an average day in 2005, 284 youth were held pre-trial in DYS detention. While that was less than the average levels from 2004, it meant that the department was operating near its full capacity of 350 detention beds, which led Tewksbury — appointed to head DYS in April 2005 and “looking at every segment of the system and doing an analysis of our strengths and our weaknesses” — to seek out some different answers.

“We had about 100 percent utilization of our detention capacity, and we wanted to take a closer look because we were getting about 5,300 kids annually,” Tewksbury said in an interview. “And while we were seeing 5,300 kids annually in our detention beds, we’d get about 1,200 new commitments per year … If we have 5,300 kids on bail and 1,200 kids committed to us, that means that there are 4,100 kids” that come through the system and are released without being taken into custody.

“So what we wanted to look at was that other 4,100 kids,” and whether or not there were viable alternatives to dealing with them, she continued.

Conversations about JDAI began about a year ago with all of the primary actors in the juvenile justice system, including the court, juvenile probation, the police, the state Departments of Social Services, Mental Health and Education, the public defender’s office and the community of private nonprofit providers of juvenile justice services. To Tewksbury, it broke down fairly simply to two main points.

“One, we could improve outcomes for kids, which would mean better public safety. And two, we could reinvest monies used for detention into more services for kids who are committed,” the commissioner said.

The conversations continued for several months before DYS and the system stakeholders convened a statewide detention reform steering committee, one of two prerequisites for Casey Foundation aid in launching the effort, according to Tewksbury. Once the pilot sites in Suffolk and Worcester counties are up and running, she added, Casey will provide technical assistance.

DYS has already tapped Elyse Clawson to consult in the development of the two local sites. Now the executive director of the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, Clawson served as the director of the Department of Community Justice in Oregon’s Multnomah County from its early development until the Casey Foundation identified it as a JDAI model site. In her experience, two of the most important elements in developing a successful system are patience and enthusiasm, neither of which she has found lacking in Massachusetts.

“We’re looking for hard outcomes over time, but it’s a lengthy process,” Clawson said. “It’s not like you just go do a program for 15 or 20 kids. And Massachusetts is a great place to do it. There’s a lot of commitment here to kids and to [developing] good systems.”

Tewksbury said that the infrastructure for success is already in place — now it’s just about identifying the right resources, asking the right questions, and most importantly, working together.

“In terms of the local or state-level people, the thing is that it’s all about just doing our job in a more collaborative way.  It isn’t even necessarily creating new programs, as much as identifying and accessing existing programs,” she said.

“Everybody in the system is looking at those kids anyway.  So in some respects, it’s just asking yourself one more question: ‘Is there an alternative to detention?’”

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