The JDAI Conference is Back!

Let the punch flow far and wide: the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Inter-Site Conference is back!

JDAI is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s efforts to reduce the use of pretrial detention in the juvenile justice system. This is the 25th anniversary of the year that former boss Bart Lubow and other Casey leaders established the initiative.

The Kool-Aid headline is a reference to the oft-repeated line by Casey staff and grantees that they have drunk the JDAI Kool-Aid. But unlike the nutty underpinnings of the Jonestown religion, the JDAI movement operates on selling a basic policy premise: you ought to have guidelines for appropriate use of juvenile detention, and back them up with valid risk tools.

The central purpose of the conference is to bring together leaders from the initiative. But functionally, this is the national conference on juvenile justice, where a wide range of juvenile justice issues are discussed in the halls and in workshops. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a federal agency, held a national convening, once, in 2011. And that event was notable to Youth Services Insider in how much less substantive it was than the average JDAI function.

Once an annual fixture on the calendar, the Annie E. Casey Foundation decided to go without a national conference for its flagship juvenile justice project in 2016. Likely unrelated: the world went to hell in a handbasket, the Cubs won a World Series, and … other stuff.

This is the largest regular gathering of juvenile justice leaders in the country – an estimated 850 this year – and Casey basically covers everything but the flights to it. In recent years, the foundation’s juvenile justice interests have widened beyond the initial JDAI scope of detention reform to include reform of the “deep-end,” the post-adjudication practices in a system.

So it is not entirely surprising, as the foundation widens the scope of its juvenile justice grant making, to see the conference move to a less-than-annual status. The gist we got from Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group for Casey, is that large convenings will stay a part of the JDAI fabric. But it might not be an every-year thing, or an all-at-once thing.

“We might have some conferences that are smaller, or more topical,” said Balis, who took the juvenile justice reins at Casey in 2014. “We just held a conference on racial equity with deep-end sites.”

Casey has always been generous enough to let Youth Services Insider roam the hallways and workshops, which has consistently led us to a few great articles each year. In addition, YSI will post updates from the conference over the next few days.

A few things we gleaned already from our conversation with Balis:

Onlining Casey Juvenile Justice

Casey will use this conference to unveil JDAI Connect, a member-only online platform for people to discuss pretty much anything related to juvenile justice. The platform is built as an external piece of the Jive software Casey used to rebuild its internal communications structure.

“Police shootings, closing prisons, raising the age, closing Rikers Island … In today’s world, we’re not having conversations about these things just in an office, we’re also having them online and with neighbors,” Balis said. “But as a network, we’re not having these conversations at all.”

The Pretrial Justice Institute is the grantee in charge of managing Connect and, especially at first, fueling it with discussion points. The hope, Balis said, is that it quickly develops into a space where conversations and discussions occur organically among users.

“Whether it’s one or two years between conferences, we have to figure out how to sustain the conversations.”

Balis said he hopes that, with a controlled list of users who can access Connect for free, there won’t be much need to moderate for the type of crazy or inflammatory commentary that ruins the comments sections of most news websites. A quick check of Connect today showed YSI that Casey properly set up the terms and conditions so that violators could quickly get the boot.

Casey is also phasing out its current training and assistance platform,, then migrating that content along with more dynamic training sessions onto Connect.

Engaging Law Enforcement an Emerging Priority

There are about two dozen members of law enforcement on the participant’s list, many of them chiefs and captains. YSI isn’t sure how many come on average, but Balis said that involving police in JDAI and the deep-end reform work is something Casey has made a priority.

He described the JDAI track record as “hit or miss” in getting police engaged in reform.

“Looking at data, if we’re going to make more progress in detention reform, the arrow points toward law enforcement,” Balis said. One of the first additions to the aforementioned JDAI Connect is a blog post teasing the forthcoming release of a practice guide called “Forging Partnerships with Law Enforcement.”

Casey brought in Strategies for Youth Founder Lisa Thurau, to work on the practice guide. Thurau’s outfit is focused entirely on training law enforcement on juvenile justice matters; research done for the practice guide found that the average cop gets about an hour of training on juvenile justice.

Connecting with Trump Justice

Casey has an ongoing joint venture with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which provided federal funds to bring JDAI to tribal governments. It was one of several investments OJJDP made in foundation projects during the Obama administration.

Balis said he’s opening to continuing the relationship with Trump’s Justice Department.

“I absolutely would want to work with whoever is at OJJDP,” Balis said. “We’re not a partisan organization. Juvenile justice has been anything but a partisan issue. It’s been bipartisan both ways, including the get-tough [era].”

The Trump Administration doesn’t have a juvenile justice policy to speak of yet, which is not at all different than the status quo for any other administration at this point in the game. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made recent comments about stepping up gang and drug prosecutions, and in the past his juvenile justice priority has been to move more teens out of it and into the adult system.

Sessions was also a major voice in that bipartisan get-tough crowd Balis referred to. And he has recently made several public statements about what he believes is a coming rise in violent crime.

“If people are saying things that don’t ring true, that’s where we’re going to have the biggest disagreements,” said Balis. “The national hysteria of the 1990s, JDAI started in part to push back against that.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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