Q&A: Bart Lubow Talks Casey Reforms, Problems with the OJJDP Agenda

A policy brief released earlier this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlighted the steady decline in juvenile commitments to any type of secure facility. As The Chronicle of Social Change reported the next day, the decline is fueled by a massive drop in state facility placements in nine states. Click here for that story.

The policy brief is one in a recent series of things that Casey has done to promote a notion it has championed for decades: That a juvenile justice systems can lower its use of detention and confinement without risking public safety, and improve the system’s impact on youths.

The foundation used to focus on the use of detention centers, and has expanded its scope to include post-adjudication facilities. Preceding this brief was a 2011 symposium in Washington about Massachusetts’ pioneering attempt at de-incarceration, and a lengthy policy piece in 2012 entitled “No Place for Kids.

The campaign is aimed at winning hearts and minds in states that have not yet signaled a readiness to decrease use of secure facilities. Casey is also going to assist a few states that are ready and willing, beginning with Georgia.

Leading the two-pronged approach is Bart Lubow, longtime director of Casey’s juvenile justice work. The Chronicle caught up with Lubow and got his thoughts on the foundation’s work and a few other subjects:

Chronicle: You have a lot of contacts on the ground in many states. From what they tell you, is the sense that these descending numbers are intentionally happening, or that there are just less youths getting arrested?

Lubow: “I think it’s a combination. There’s no doubt arrests have gone down. But if you study incarceration historically, the numbers don’t always suggest what they would if  we had rational system.

There is also no doubt much of this has been intentional. Whether it’s 200 JDAI sites decreasing use of detention, or California and Texas and Louisiana taking practical steps, it’s not just a function of changes in arrest patterns.”

Chronicle: A couple years ago, the Obama administration proposed a huge change in how the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was funded. It would end most of the funding for compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and make compliance the cost of entering a competition for big grants.

It would mean no funding for most states, but potentially big money for some states that wanted to undertake big reforms. Do you support that concept?

Lubow: “Well, I think there are two fundamental problems with the OJJDP agenda. The first has been that the lion-share of the money is focused on a 40-year-old set of reforms. I’m not sure that’s either necessary or makes sense.

I know there’s a deep commitment with the state advisory groups to achieving those four core requirements, and they’re important. But it’s a 40 year-old agenda. I’m not sure the pressing problem in juvenile justice today is the de-institutionalization of status offenders.”

In all other respects, the agenda is far too broad and therefore too shallow to have an impact on field. And with a broad agenda, one consequence is, people go to the lowest political common denominator. People will go primarily to prevention because it’s easy to support; who’s opposed to prevention?

What surprises me is that OJJDP still has as much influence as it does.

If OJJDP sneezes ‘assessment centers’, 20 states will do assessment centers. And OJJDP has that kind of influence because it’s part of the federal government. So nothing good will come from them if OJJDP doesn’t use its bully pulpit well.”

Chronicle: Casey chose Georgia as the first state Casey would work with on lowering the use of training schools. The state has already cut its state facility population by about 1,000 since 1997. Do you see specific ways there that you can bring the numbers down more?

Lubow: “Yeah, I think the special council that Gov. [Nathan] Deal empaneled…identified moderate changes that could considerably reduce it even further. There are a lot of low-risk kids, and a large number doing short sentences in local facilities.”

Chronicle: So these guys know what they want to do. Where does Casey come in?

Lubow: “Our efforts are aimed at helping system officials at the state and local level effectively implement the recommendations. We’ll help Georgia reform its structured decision making, risk-needs assessments, and work with them on staff training and quality assurance.

One thing the governor proposed was a new pool of money to local courts to increase program opportunities, and send fewer kids to state facilities.

As you know, the field of alternatives is littered with good intentions, so we’re working with state officials on a bidder’s conference aimed at maximizing the likelihood money will go to kids otherwise locked up, and the interventions that seem to work best.”

Chronicle: As Casey’s policy brief shows, there were some states where the state facility figures trended upward. Do you think you guys will take a crack at one of those states?

Lubow: “What my unit does best, and this is reflected in JDAI, is the very practical assistance to implement stuff and not the rhetoric of policy advocacy.

We’ll continue to beat the drum and rely on allies, networks, grantees, to create greater awareness. But we don’t go into places that…don’t want to get into this kind of reform.”

As the field becomes aware of promising reform, the demand [for reform] increases.

I’m in no hurry to get governors pounding on our door. I am in a hurry to get them to appreciate the trends going on, and know a lot more about doing this right.”

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