JDAI Day One: Let the Choir Drinketh the Kool-Aid!

Note: This article was updated on June 3

Philadelphia, Penn.

Youth Services Insider, your faithful provider of industry news at The Chronicle of Social Change, has arrived in the City of Brotherly Love for this year’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Inter-Site Conference, an Annie E. Casey Foundation production.

Usually, YSI columns are for subscribers only. But since Casey is kind enough to let us wander the halls for free, we’ll match their magnanimity. But you should subscribe, or take a 10-day trial!

For the uninitiated: Casey has overseen JDAI for 22 years now. The foundation supports sites in 39 states to examine the way they handle admissions to pre-trial detention of juvenile offenders, and then reconfigure those practices around the idea that detention should be used only in the interest of public safety.

It’s a great conference because it brings together a lot of different juvenile justice stakeholders from around the country . What a great opportunity for Office of Juvenile Justice Administrator Bob Listenbee to communicate and help shape the latest federal priorities.

What’s that? He’s not scheduled to attend? That makes sense too. There are two OJJDP lieutenants on the guest list, though: Listenbee’s Chief of Staff Shanetta Cutlar and one of his advisors, Cathy Pierce.

Anyway, as usual the first day was a light one that centers mostly around checking in and imbibing. A few notes, though, in advance of tomorrow’s early-morning start.

1) The Big Lubow-ski

Each first morning of the JDAI conference, Casey’s juvenile justice leader Bart Lubow delivers a “State of the Initiative” speech. Presumably, this morning’s will be his last, as Lubow is semi-retiring and handing the reins to Nate Balis. Fire and brimstone? Laughter and tears? It’s all in play. Actually, not tears, that is not in play.

2) Kids for Cash

Casey screened the documentary on the Luzerne County juvenile court scandal, which featured the stories of several youths who were detained and confined for absurdly minor offenses by now-disgraced judge Mark Ciavarella. The film also features several interviews with Ciavarella and the other judge involved in the scandal, Michael Conahan.

I was one of the many reporters to cover Luzerne in the wake of the scandal. You can click here to read our main feature story published at the time.

YSI’s overall sentiment about that low in juvenile history remains bittersweet. Yes, the world turned on two men convicted in connection with receiving millions to help establish a private detention center and place youths in it. But the reality is that if Ciavarella had never taken money, he could still be shuttling kids into confinement for infractions and crimes that do now warrant such action.

Not until a quid pro quo involving money came into the picture did anyone other than the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) and some local reporters take an interest in Ciavarella’s courtroom.

Ciavarella would go around to school assemblies and essentially issue a blanket court order to behave, as if any kid, ever, has paid attention at a school assembly. His court staff rushed about half of his docket through without a lawyer.

When the Juvenile Law Center challenged Ciavarella’s practices in a petition to the state supreme court, the court rejected the petition. Years later, with money involved, the same practices became the backbone of a “Kids for Cash” scandal.

In a perverse way, the whole thing should probably embolden every nutty judge who wants to lay the wood down on every act of mischief. The Luzerne County timeline is a testament to the notion that you are free to be completely out of line with the entire concept of juvenile justice, just as long as you aren’t getting paid extra to do so.

As for our view of the film: Masterfully edited. It builds up the facts, and then simply overwhelms viewers with emotion on the back end.

Discussing the film briefly with Lubow after the screening, he mentioned that an early cut shown to Casey brought up some concern with how much airtime was given to Ciavarella and Conahan. [Casey was one of several philanthropic funders of the film.]

We will never know how much (if any) got cut before the official release, but our take is that the lengthy interviews with the judges are good for two reasons. First, it strips any credibility away from a critic who wanted to paint the film as being a bleeding heart production of advocacy.

Secondly, in our opinion, it makes the judges look worse! Ciavarella in particular is seen delivering thin defenses of his behavior just minutes before a segment on a young man who committed suicide years after a Ciavarella incarceration had sent his life into a tailspin.

The most intriguing comment in the ensuing discussion came from Massachusetts juvenile justice Jay Blitzman, who suggested that opening juvenile courts to the public was the first step toward preventing kangaroo courts like Luzerne.

“I feel the same way,” we heard a fellow judge from Pittsburgh tell Blitzman after the discussion. Juvenile Law Center co-founder Bob Schwartz pointed out that in the few places where juvenile courts have been opened, very few reporters showed up with any regularity.

3) Deep end underway

Not surprisingly, there are a number of sessions at the conference about the newer “deep-end” component of JDAI, which relates to the foundation’s goal to halve the number of youth who are incarcerated in big juvenile facilities.

The registration packet included a brief on the six counties chosen by Casey as initial demonstration sites for the deep-end work: St. Louis (Mo.), Bernalillo County (N.M), Jefferson Parish (La.), Lucas County (Ohio), Marion County (Ind.), and Washoe County (Nevada).

The findings suggest that revision of the probation violation process will be a key to achieving the desired reductions. At least 30 percent of the youth confined in each of those counties were there for a violation.

4) We may have a rhetorical change at JDAI.

The initiative has added hundreds of sites over the years, and its veteran supporters like to readily admit to drinking the “JDAI Kool-Aid.” For many, the idiom conjures images of the most famous mass-suicide in history. Here? Badge of honor.

The early action this year might suggest a rhetorical shift though; in an opening session, Casey Senior Associate Gail Mumford made an elaborate point about the importance of continuing to preach to the choir. So we might need to change the artwork if that’s the new lingo.

Click here for our roundup of Day Two!

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly.

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.