Casey Foundation Makes Clear: JDAI is Now a System-Wide Juvenile Reform Movement

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative – known widely in the field simply as JDAI – is the longest-running philanthropic reform effort in juvenile justice. And in commencing this year’s JDAI conference for those involved in it across hundreds of sites in the country, the man in charge of it acknowledged that the name was no longer accurate.

“For a long time we have been about more than detention reform,” he said before an audience of about 800 in Seattle last month. Of the 186 proposals for presentations at the conference, he noted, only about 20 percent specifically related to detention issues.

JDAI started in 1992 with a simple problem and theory of change: systems used pretrial detention to hold juveniles with, often without any gauge of the need to do so, and those youths then became more likely to get confined by a judge for their alleged crimes. If you could get systems to actually gauge the need for detention in each case, it would lower usage and thus lower later incarceration.

Several years ago, former JDAI director Bart Lubow announced that Casey would begin to work on the “deep end” of the system, lowering state and county reliance on out of home placements as sentences for juveniles. This work involved many existing JDAI sites, but was nominally done to the side of the actual initiative.

Last year, Balis announced the foundation’s newest juvenile justice pursuit: downsizing and improving juvenile probation.

With Casey now engaged in systems reform on three fronts, the “detention alternatives” framework has grown imprecise. And the interests of the foundation’s detention reform sites have broadened, said Balis – in soliciting proposals for conference topics, he said, about 20 percent related specifically to detention issues.

Our guess is that JDAI will just sort of morph from initialism to brand, with no official change. But Balis posited a re-engineering of the letters to encapsulate what the foundation’s juvenile justice program now stood for: Just, Developmentally appropriate, Accountable, Inclusive.

Here are a few news and notes from Youth Services Insider’s wanderings around this year’s conference.

The Front Door

In 2007, when YSI was working on a story on JDAI’s first 15 years, former director Lubow mentioned his desire that the foundation look beyond pretrial detention into some other aspects of the system. Some examples, we asked?

“Like, detention,” Lubow said. “What are we really doing there?”

Twelve years later, it feels like the front door of the system is poised to become the focal point of Casey’s juvenile justice work. Balis told YSI, with a gleam in his eye, that the foundation’s recent white paper on probation garnered more reads and reactions – positive and negative – than anything he could recall the foundation putting out.

“It is time for all of the JDAI sites to rethink the purpose of detention,” Balis said at the conference.

The foundation’s probation agenda, led by point man and former probation officer Steve Bishop, can be boiled down to a two-pronged mission.

Step one: get systems to dramatically beef up their array of diversion options, and steer a lot more kids into those, lowering the number of youths who are actually placed on probation.

Step two: replace the basic surveillance-violation nature of probation with a plan that uses pro-social incentives and referrals to engage youth in positive behavior.

Casey has been building a proof of concept of sorts in two of its JDAI sites: Lucas County, Ohio (Toledo) and Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington. The reduction and recalibration of probation in these counties was at the heart of a training the foundation bankrolled with probation leaders this month in Washington, D.C. Casey has tapped the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, led by Shay Bilchik at Georgetown University, to lead that training program.

The Hamilton Agenda

The foundation’s juvenile justice leaders are expanding the portfolio of systemic reforms it will work on. But it sounds like the foundation’s top leader has other ambitions and ideas for grant making.

The past two heads of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Doug Nelson and Patrick McCarthy, both ran government agencies before heading to philanthropy – Nelson in Wisconsin and McCarthy in Delaware. It was their experience in those systems that drove their later ambition to change it.

Hamilton, who comes from the private sector, didn’t necessarily challenge the wisdom of system reform in her address to the group. But she did seem interested in figuring out how to get beyond it in the way Casey comes at juvenile justice.

“This is not a call to end systems reform, just to think about a range of partners,” she said. “No amount of system transformation can be substituted for a community that loves kids. We need all hands on deck.”

Hamilton also suggested that more needs to be done to push back against two narratives: the idea that “early childhood is the only time to make a difference,” she said, and the more general “negative stereotypes on teens.”

“Thanks to the people in this room, we fought back on the super-predators” scare of the 1990s, Hamilton said. “I want to see us raise up the promise that our young people have.”

The Color of Justice

YSI caught a panel discussion on the intersection of mental health and race that doubled as a release for a report called “The Color of Justice.” It is fair to say that the report calls into question the entire involvement of the standard mental health system in juvenile justice, at least in its interactions with non-white children.

“In the absence of culturally relevant community mental health services and strategies, the JJ system has become the de facto provider” of mental health in many parts of America, the report says. It is a “task for which it is ill-equipped.”

Having read the report, here is the super-quick cheat sheet on its arguments:

  • Systemic racism causes some youth of color to be underdiagnosed, and others to be unnecessarily tagged with conduct disorders.
  • Many of the evidence-based mental health interventions in juvenile justice have not been proven to be effective with youth of color.
  • Communities of color experience a collective trauma referred to as “allostatic load” when their children are detained and incarcerated.

Click here to access the report. Grills said that California has been building a separate track of “community-defined” evidence for community and family interventions for non-white populations, and is in year  three of tracking outcomes for them.

RIP, Kool-Aid Guy Reference

Anyone who has read our previous columns on Casey’s JDAI conference knows we delight in the creepy, frequent references by its attendees and presenters to having “drank the Kool-Aid” on detention reform.

Well, YSI heard nary a Kool-Aid reference during this year’s sessions. So with this year’s Space Needle edition of Kool-Aid man, we officially retire the joke. Oh yeahhhh!

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at