Notes from JDAI 2017: On Probation, Détente, Mental Health and Race

Greetings, and farewell, from sunny Orlando!

After two days in the shadow of America’s Mouse, the JDAI Inter-Site conference is a wrap. As we mentioned before it started, it’s unclear when the next one will be, or if the Annie E. Casey Foundation will continue to hold massive conferences.

Youth Services Insider spent the days roaming the hallways and popping into workshops. A few takeaways from the conference:

Probation Reform

Balis mentioned in his speech, and to YSI in our interview before the conference, that better connecting with law enforcement in JDAI communities was a priority. We get the sense that another item on the priority list might be engaging sites in significant realignment of their probation departments; namely, in diverting a lot of youth out of its reach.

This is an area of the system, we’ve heard from juvenile justice observers, that Casey should definitely be involved in. It’s somewhat difficult to tease out how much the detention reform process is responsible for lowering detention admissions, since lower arrest rates are obviously a major driving factor there. But violations of probation are definitely a continuing drive of detention use, and is therefore fertile ground for making further progress.

Tuesday’s morning agenda included a workshop on “transforming probation,” which featured the efforts of Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington and Lucas County (Toledo), Ohio. That session was followed with a more intimate “Table Talk” discussion on Wednesday.

We’ll likely flesh this out in articles down the road, but Lucas County developed a decision-making tool that steers low-level offenders to diversion. About 70 percent of the county’s juvenile arrests are for misdemeanor offenses; the most severe outcome for most of those offenders is referral to the assessment center the county established in 2013.

This has allowed probation staff to focus on youth who commit more serious offenses, and are assigned to receive community-based services, said Demecia Wilson, administrator of the county probation department. The average officer’s caseload has dropped from 50 before the recalibration to 18.

In Pierce County, probation has recently begun an “Opportunity-Based Probation” pilot, which Probation Manager Kevin Williams conceded was a rhetorical dance around calling it incentive-based.

“There is lot of pushback on the word ‘incentive,’” Williams said. “We heard, ‘You’re paying kids to commit crimes!’”

Not exactly, but there are small but escalating prizes for youth who move through probation without incident. And perhaps more important than that is the chance for probation to be ended early, which Williams said was a non-starter for the county until recently.

The program just started in March with the caseloads of five probation officers.

Steve Bishop, a senior associate in Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group and former probation officer, laid out the argument for why probation is both a central problem, and the best potential solution, for driving down reliance on lockup.

On the problem side, he said, it starts simply with the fact that probation is an adult construct that is not compatible with the way youth see the world.

“The idea of a list of conditions has no effect,” Bishop said. “Being risk-averse is an adult construct. Those work for adults, it does not work for adolescents. That’s not how they’re wired.”

Within a faulty construct, Bishop said, there is also no conventionally accepted approach to determining the consequences of technical violations.

There’s no national or state standard, so often it changes cubicle to cubicle, said Bishop. “I had three pages of violations before a kid went back in court, the guy next to me would do it after two violations.”

His argument for probation being part of the solution: you don’t have to build it or fight for funding. It’s in pretty much every county in America, and the number of youth on probation is way down (about 680,000 in the mid-1990s, about 380,000 now, though shifts in probation totals probably vary widely from place to place). So it’s funded, and always easier to change at lower numbers.

Bishop said Casey will be releasing a white paper in the near future making the case that probation should be limited to youth with serious and repeat offenses.

National Group Détente

There are a handful of organizations that could be seen as national leaders when it come to juvenile justice. Any list would include the following:

  • Casey, the most consistent philanthropic entity in the space
  • The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), which represents the state agency leaders
  • The National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS), which represents professionals working in juvenile facilities.

A few years ago, there was some notable friction between NPJS and CJCA, and between NPJS and Casey. NPJS and CJCA had originally managed a federally funded National Center on Youth in Custody until OJJDP turned the whole grant over to NPJS.

A year later, OJJDP abruptly shut down the youth-in-custody project, and reorganized its training and technical assistance portfolio. NPJS was out; CJCA was back in as a sub-grantee for the new funding.

Meanwhile, Casey CEO Patrick McCarthy had produced a YouTube video arguing for the closure of all youth prisons. That did not sit well with some of the NPJS leadership.

“It’s frustrating to hear those messages,” said NPJS Managing Director Mike Jones, in 2015. “We’re not at all opposed to JDAI. But not all juvenile corrections facilities are bad.”

Fast forward to this week. Longtime CJCA President Ned Loughran sadly passed away last year, and the organization tapped veteran Indiana juvenile justice director Mike Dempsey to replace him. NPJS also has new leadership: Wayne Bear, who succeeded Carol Cramer Brooks in 2016.

Bear and Dempsey are discussing ways to jointly bring back the National Center for Youth in Custody. Both men were present at the Casey conference, and Casey’s juvenile justice director Nate Balis has attended a few recent NPJS and CJCA meetings.

These groups may not end up working together a whole lot, but it is certainly better for the field if they are in communication. NPJS’s focus is on improving services within juvenile services; Casey wants to keep more kids out of those facilities. The goals might not match up, but they certainly are not at odds.

Recidivism, Reshmidivism?

If you asked any person on the street how to measure the success of a juvenile justice program, they’d almost certainly say, “Recidivism.” We’re kidding – only criminal justice nerds know and use that term.

He or she would ask: “Did they get in trouble again?” And because that is what the average person thinks, it’s what politicians care about as well.

But YSI senses an upcoming challenge to the notion that recidivism is an appropriate gauge of juvenile justice interventions. In the aforementioned probation workshop, Bishop raised the idea of other metrics.

“Our outcomes all point to reducing recidivism, but is that really enough? For me, youth development and well-being matter as much. They should leave better off.”

Veteran juvenile justice researcher Jeff Butts and Vincent Schiraldi, who has run D.C.’s juvenile system and New York City’s probation department, will soon release a paper questioning the value of recidivism as a measure.

Butts voiced skepticism about recidivism to YSI many moons ago. In 2009, we called him asking about a never-completed federal project aimed at developing a national, standardized way to measure juvenile recidivism. To our surprise at the time, since he worked on the project, he voiced the same idea Bishop did about moving toward positive youth development outcomes.

A hypothetical Butts gave us in 2009, by way of explanation:

What if recidivism were defined as “a new arrest within 12 months of the previous court disposition”? And what if Community A makes heavy use of informal diversion to keep kids out of court while Community B sends nearly every case to court?

In Community A, only the most serious cases would have a previous court disposition. Their denominator would be smaller, and thus they would have a higher recidivism rate than Community B. Community B could correctly claim a lower recidivism rate, but their “success” would be a function of their case flow procedures and not the effectiveness of their rehabilitation efforts.

Mental Health and Race

In a Wednesday workshop about the intersection of mental health, juvenile justice and race, YSI heard about a new project forged by Reclaiming Futures and the W. Haywood Burns Institute called Behavioral Health-Racial and Ethnic Disparities (Reclaiming Executive Director Evan Elkin says they’re looking for a catchier name).

The project, Elkin said, will test “the hypothesis that decision points in behavioral health are vulnerable to racial bias. Those decision points include: Screening, assessment and diagnosis, treatment decisions, engagement/compliance, and measuring success.

Elkin said part of the motivation to pursue this is the poor experience of minority youth in drug courts. “Kids of color don’t get enrolled as often, and they don’t graduate when they do.”

There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of data on the subject yet, so we certainly hope this venture yields some. Elkin argued that as the field has moved away from the punitive preferences borne of the “superpredator” craze, it has replaced that with a system based on pathologizing youth. So racial disparities in the pathology process would undoubtedly contribute to the racial proportions along the juvenile justice continuum staying out of whack.


Chatting in the hallways with some folks from the Midwest, and the subject of the opioid epidemic came up. One intervention staffer from Ohio shared that a nearby town had seen 19 overdose cases in a 24-hour period.

Probation and intake staff in his county had all been trained to administer Narcan, not on the streets so much as to juveniles who “fall out” during their time in the court and intake buildings. Narcan, a nasal spray of Naloxone that can save someone who has OD’d, is now readily available around the offices.

The opioid epidemic has had a clear impact on the child welfare system; the Department of Health and Human Services said last year that an uptick in the number of substance abuse-related removals is driving the overall increase in foster care.

The impact on juvenile justice is less clear, and something YSI intends to dig into.

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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
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1 Comment

  1. Nice summary article. I hope you attend the NPJS conference in October to write about as well.

    23rd National Symposium on Juvenile Services
    Improving Juvenile Services: Identifying and Promoting Quality Practice
    October 8 – 12, 2017
    Rosen Plaza Hotel
    Orlando, FL

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