Youth Services Insider: Details on Seven-State Project to Reduce Juvenile Incarceration

The Annie E. Casey Foundation used a recent online newsletter to quietly announce the six counties that would be working with the grant maker to decrease use of placement options for adjudicated youths. They are:

Jefferson Parish, La. (just outside of New Orleans)
Marion County, Ind. (Indianapolis)
Washoe County, Nev. (Reno)

St Louis, Mo.
Lucas County, Ohio (Toledo)
Bernalillo County, N.M. (Albuquerque)

These sites are in addition to Georgia, which Casey and the Pew Center on the State’s will engage on a state level. Each of them will receive a basic grant for the project from Casey, and will also have Casey’s large arsenal of training and technical assistance partners at their disposal.

All of the sites have participated in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a 21-year-old detention reform initiative that Casey still oversees.

Youth Services Insider caught up with Casey Senior Associate Nate Balis, who will run point on the project for the foundation’s juvenile justice Master and Commander, Bart Lubow. Some notes on the new Casey venture:

No Prescription, Lots of Checkups

The idea here is for each site to begin with an “intense assessment to figure out the levers for change,” said Balis, which is a nicer way of saying “where the system is screwing up and confining kids without good reason.”

The expectation is that the reasons won’t be the same in all six sites. Some might have quick triggers to lock juveniles up on technical violations, others might lack non-confinement options for handling substance abuse. The assessment in each place should set up the specific goals of the project.

From the assessment through to the end, Balis said, there will be regular tracking of progress and solicitation of feedback.

“Whereas JDAI has done the formal evaluation after the fact, we’re going in with a process that follows us,” Balis said. “Are these the right steps, tools? Could they be better?”

The assessment process has already begun in four of the six counties; more on that in a minute.

More Than Training Schools

YSI was there in Kansas City when Lubow announced Casey’s intention to get involved with reforming the “deep end” of juvenile justice. At the time it sounded like the focus would be on emptying out state training schools, the Death Stars of juvenile disposition if you’ll permit a Star Wars analogy.

Not the case, Balis said.

“We have a broader focus than that,” he said. “The output is not just state corrections, but out-of-home placement in general.”

There are plenty of options that can be counted as out-of-home, like residential substance abuse or mental health programs, group homes or other child welfare-esque spots, an assessment center. It is up to the counties to define the universe of out-of-home placements, and it’s clear Casey wants them to err on the side of inclusion.

“They all signed on to do out-of-home placements,” said Balis. “We didn’t go in with a definition, we’re counting on them as partners.”

YSI’s guess is that this will be helpful in informing all parties about the top-down effect on this project. If a county were only to lower usage of secure, state or county-run juvenile prisons, there likely be no awareness of where those juveniles went instead.

Did they all end up in community programs, or did they head to a residential program that is less severe but out-of-home nonetheless? The appropriateness of either really depends on the case. And you have a much better chance of totaling up the impact of the work if all out-of-home placements

How Much Casey Do You Need?

Casey has set up the work in these five counties and St. Louis to try and gauge exactly how hands-on the foundation needs to be to accomplish what it wants here, which is a meaningful decrease in out-of-home placements.

Jefferson Parish and Marion County will get an intense approach, meaning that Casey will regularly dispatch its merry band of consultants to work on data analysis, system assessments and strategic planning.

The other four sites just finished up a joint session in Baltimore on conducting assessments, and the newsletter described their path as a “self-guided” approach. It will mostly fall to county staff to assess, track and manage  the project and ask for help as needed.

“The more tool-based, the bigger the initial trainings as opposed to day-to-day presence, the more it will allow us to scale up much quicker,” Balis said. “If we have to put a lot of money and time in, we’ll maybe have done 10 places in five years. If the system assessment…could be done as a self-assessment, without outside people, that allows for much faster scaling.”

Next On The Calendar

A few things on the immediate horizon for this project:
-In June, there will be an inter-site meeting in Chicago for representatives from all six local sites and Georgia.

-Balis said the hope is that the six sites will all have completed the initial assessments sometime around the Chicago meeting.

-Casey passed on San Francisco-based Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice to be one of the lead consultants on the project, but liked part of its proposal so much they found room for a separate grant.

CJCJ, which operates direct service programs for and advocates on behalf of juvenile offenders, will meet with each of the six sites individually to help them investigate and develop options on how to work with the most difficult juveniles.

It is an interesting project for CJCJ to take on, considering that the organization has mostly retreated from national work and focused on California’s justice system. Then again, it has spent the better part of this decade calling for the closure of all state-run juvenile facilities in California.

Balis said Casey wants to use the organization’s history for customized planning to help sell the sites on “the concept of being really creative with a plan.”

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by John Kelly, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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