Notes from the JDAI Conference in Houston

JDAI Inter-Site Conference, Houston Mall Edition, is finito. I managed about eight hours of hallway chatter, six workshops, got my ear pierced and bought a massage chair at Brookstone (two of those things are not true).

Here’s a smattering of news Youth Services Insider (YSI) picked up over the two days:

Plunging into the deep end. JDAI master and commander Bart Lubow used the morning session to inform attendees about the foundation’s mission to halve the number of incarcerated juveniles.

The basic plan is to start with a public awareness campaign that both touts the downward trend in secure juvenile commitments and makes the case for greater strides in de-incarceration. That will be followed by Casey-supported pilot projects to reduce populations in the facilities of a few states,  with training and technical assistance available to some extent for other states.

Which states will get the nod as pilots? Few would even hazard a guess to YSI. One attendee that works closely with Casey threw out Kansas as a decent option, because it has a couple state-run facilities that currently house a healthy amount of low-risk offenders.

Whichever states get chosen, it looks like the idea is a two-pronged attack. The Pew Center on the States (Casey’s major partner on this project) will work on statutory reforms, crafting legislation and policy that codifies an approach that relies less on incarceration and, ideally, reinvests savings from the decreased use of facilities into community programs.

Without a reinvestment from de-incarceration, Lubow told the crowd, “Those who are wishing for greater investments for alternatives and community programs will continue to be wishing because the money will go down the incarceration drain.

Meanwhile, Casey will also invest in improvements to the array of incarceration alternatives, and avail pilot sites of the foundation’s many consultants and trainers.

JDAI’s Future. Lubow assured the audience on Wednesday morning that it would not be delegating away oversight of JDAI any time soon. A Thursday afternoon panel co-hosted by Lubow began the discussion about what comes after “any time soon.”

“The current framework is gonna change,” said Tim Murray of the Pretrial Justice Institute, who co-hosted the panel with Lubow. “It’s inevitable.”

The session was a first conversation with people out in the far-flung JDAI field about the reality of scaling down an effort that has been operated and financed by Casey for years.

“Foundations are incubators, not intermediary organizations managing vast enterprises,” Lubow said at the panel. Eventually, the foundation’s board will want to turn the day-to-day attention of its juvenile justice staff toward new ventures, starting with the new project on de-incarceration.

The likely scenario is that some organization, or perhaps more than one, will operate a national association of some kind that contracts with Casey and perhaps other funders to maintain the JDAI effort. Within that umbrella, you could see regional networks that serve as the primary conduits of training and information exchange, with periodic summits and webinars and whatnot at the national level.

You have to think Murray’s Pretrial Justice Institute, a major partner in JDAI for years, will figure prominently in whatever comes next. It oversees the JDAI Helpdesk, the web depot for every published material related to the initiative, and it is the Casey partner with a mission the fits most exactly with the overall thrust of JDAI.

One big challenge will be how to shift the regular oversight of JDAI to others while still keeping Lubow prominently involved. More than one person at the workshop mentioned how valuable it is for them that Lubow can call or meet an official or judge and have a tense conversation that might cost a local his job.

Another interesting idea for the initiative, mentioned by Bob Balicki of New Jersey: Figuring out a way to get information on JDAI into the curriculum of college classes about law enforcement and juvenile justice.

Selling Risk Assessments. Caught a presentation on risk assessment instruments (RAI), and learned that a small cottage industry has popped up of vendors selling assessments to counties or states.

RAI are a key aspect of detention policies, because for systems that use them they are an expression of what factors those systems see as determinant of the need for detention.  The score on a RAI drives the decision to detain, unless the decision-maker at intake chooses to override the score.

Many of the assessments for sale from vendors gauge the likelihood that a juvenile would endanger people if released, or that he would fail to appear in court. They also gauge the juvenile’s needs (mental health problems or special education) and potential deficits (drug use, being a runaway).

It is the need and deficit aspect of the vendor assessments that are a headache for JDAI proponents, because the philosophy of the initiative is that only two factors should steer a decision to detain a child: risk to the public and risk of failing to appear in court.

After the workshop, we asked veteran JJ expert David Steinhart what a rational override percentage would be for an RAI. In other words, is there a sweet spot where you’d know that a RAI was being relied upon, but not blindly?

His estimate: 15 to 20 percent.

Probation Violations: Leading Cause of DMC?

In a few different workshops where racial disparities were discussed, a common theme seemed to be that violations of probation was the main reason that a higher percentage of minority youth were being detained than white youth.

It made YSI recall a conversation I had years ago with a researcher in New Mexico, who discovered that Latino juveniles were getting way more rigid terms of probation than white juveniles got for similar crimes, and not surprisingly, violating those terms more often.

When the researcher took this information to the judge who set those terms, she told YSI, the conversation was over before it started. He took it as an accusation of racism.

Things went better for Gail Grover, who is director of the Baton Rouge Department of Juvenile Services in Louisiana. She and her staff noticed a huge disparity in detentions for probation violations. Searching for offenses by zip code, they discovered that a handful of probation officers working in a nearly all-black area were skipping the graduated sanctions that most officers used. The officers would simply recommend detention on the first violation.

The discussion about this was not acrimonious, Grover told me. The officers said they didn’t realize everyone else was stepping up gradually to detention, and told Grover they would follow suit from now on.

Kathy Collins of Monmouth County, N.J., told a Thursday morning workshop that some black juveniles Monmouth’s Asbury Park are landing in detention because residential programs they are referred to give them the boot for things like sneaking outside to smoke cigarettes or, as one juvenile’s notes said, for “breaking stuff.

Probation officers, trusting in the quality of the programs, would often immediately sign off that the juvenile had violated probation and send them to detention, Collins said.

One response of this has been the establishment of a coach program at Mercy Center, a community organization in Asbury Park. It is in the early stages, but the idea is to connect violators with a coach who can work with the juvenile’s probation officers in an effort to avoid a detention placement.

That’s all from Houston! Check the The Chronicle of Social Change’s temporary website for more YSI columns,  other news, and updates on the Chronicle.

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

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