Punishment Is Not The Answer

Prisons have, for centuries focused on punishment, security and control. The effectiveness of this well worn approach can be seen in recidivism rates. They range from 25% to 75%. If a private business had such product failure rates they would go bankrupt. Prisons, however, are mostly publicly funded institutions, and as such are immune from  the accountability requirements of the private sector. Thus, a high recidivism rate does not prompt prison administrators, or the politicians who fund them, to examine what they are doing wrong and fix things. Instead, taxpayer money keeps getting poured into a system that fails far too often.

Many European countries have prison systems that operate according to belief in rehabilitation. They realize that punishment does not achieve the objective of preparing those sent to prison for a successful life upon release. That realization prompted them to design their systems to move way beyond punishment and make significant efforts to deal with the problems inmates bring with them to prison.  Unlike American prisons, they offer a lot more freedom and opportunity for personal growth. They understand the huge importance of prisoners maintaining family connections and offer opportunities to strengthen and develop those connections. Their systems are designed to more closely mirror real life, yet with the restrictions prisons need to have. The expected result is that their prisons are safer for inmates and staff and that fewer numbers of those released come back. It is apparent that underlying their systems is a belief that people can change. They do not claim that those convicted of crimes are disposable, or less than those not caught in criminal activity. These are ideas that, one day will be incorporated into American criminal justice.

North Dakota is leading the way in introducing Norway style reforms into their system. It’s probably easier there due to the small size of their prison population, but it is a significant and needed change of direction that merits following.

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment


We don’t need prisons that function as schools for criminal behavior.
We don’t need to be locking up people who are not a threat to public safety.
We don’t need to have social safety nets that leave kids behind to grow into criminals
We don’t need laws that criminalize private behavior that has no victims.
Yet, we have all those things. Alongside that there is a strong reluctance, on the part of those with authority, to show the leadership required to change things as they are. Every two years elected representatives arrive in Austin and enact new laws, change existing ones, and, not often enough, get rid of laws that don’t need to be on the books.
When these folks look at criminal justice issues, their risk averseness , rises considerably. Instead of following the advise of Sam Houston, (” Do right and risk the consequences) they are content with minor tweaks to a system that has long needed major overhaul. Their’s is no easy job when it comes to dealing with people who break the law. Many of them are trained lawyers and businessmen/women, not human service professionals. They make, and maintain, the rules that govern Texas criminal justice. Without the expertise and experience of assisting dysfunctional individuals to inform their decisions, they rely, far too often, on guidance from their respective political parties, those who fund their campaigns, a select group of “experts” and their concerns about elections.
The success of their decision making can be seen in the evidence. It shows that taxpayers are currently subsidizing a system that locks up too many, for too long, at too great a cost. That cost extends far beyond the tax dollars. It includes the cost to the families left behind when one of them goes to prison. Back in 2007 the cost of new prisons was avoided by bi-partisan reforms that increased the emphasis on substance abuse treatment and community supervision. Partly due to that, Texas has, what some consider to be, a fairly low recidivism rate. However, if you had a business and 25 % of your products were returned as defective…..changes would be required, because that’s where the profit is. The State, however, is not a private business and is thus exempt from the accountability measures that dictate the success or failure of a private business.
So, strictly from a business perspective, our prison system needs changes so that the recidivism rate is greatly diminished. Every return costs taxpayer money. Taxpayers have a right to insist on tax funded systems that are effective and efficient. In terms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the road to transformation is implied in its mission statement.
“The mission of TDCJ is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, re-integrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”
What it does not mention, and needs to be included, is promoting programs that narrow down the school to prison pipeline. But that is a subject for another time. What can be done now is to compare how TDCJ operates and see how that fits with the mission statement. Anything that does not support the mission needs changing, or elimination.
Tackling a job this huge cannot be left solely to the folks at the capitol………….that would be like asking the police to investigate themselves. What is needed is the informed input of experts like doctors, pyschiatrists psychologists, ministers, criminal justice experts of all kinds, businessmen, victims and prisoners, past and present, etc.
For years now, the Austin criminal justice think tank, Right on Crime has been advocating, in other states, a process called Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Basically it calls for a top to bottom review of how tax money is spent in the criminal justice system. The objective is to maximize the potential and minimize the cost of current programs. With all the interest in making America great ………let’s put Texas absolutely in the forefront regarding criminal justice reform. Texas has all the resources needed to make this state number one in terms of a common sense, evidence based, transformation of how we deal with lawbreakers.

Juveniles in Prison and the 85th Texas Legislature

Before the session began there was hope among prisoners, sentenced as juveniles, that bills might pass that would give them a Second Look after 20 years. Proponents of reform outside prison did all they could to encourage legislators to make change happen. All were disappointed, but not necessarily surprised, when none of the bills made it to a floor vote. With the emphasis now shifting to the next session, much needs to be done in the interim. Here’s a message posted on facebook about that very subject:

Once again Texas lawmakers have shown their addiction to incremental change in terms of how to more effectively deal with lawbreakers. The challenge before us now is to create and implement strategies that will encourage them to actually make change happen next session.
At the same time, not all changes require the legislature to act. Executive and administrative changes can be made that don’t require politicians….but they do require sustained and massive pressure from voters who pay the salaries the salaries of TDCJ employees. It is thus clear to me that we need to advocate for change in multiple ways.
In keeping with that, here are some thoughts that come to mind. In view of the immensity of the challenge, more thoughts will follow and current thougths will be refined.
1. The base needs to be dramatically expanded. TIFA and Epicenter need a much larger membership in order to have a more effective voice. With 70,000 people cycling in and out of TDCJ every year, the number of potential advocates for change is huge. The question is how to get more folks involved.
2. Lawmakers in every part of the State need to hear from the voters in their districts on a regular basis about reforms that are clearly identified. At this point, Raise the Age and Second Look are the obvious ones. Work time credit for 3g individuals is another one.
3. Efforts to get mainstream media coverage need to be ongoing and Statewide. This is to address the education deficit that most voters have when it comes to not knowing how their tax money is being wasted keeping too many locked up, for too long.
4. TDCJ needs to be lobbied to implement some of the institutional changes outlined in the “Responsible Prison Project”……an analysis of present prison conditions with recommendations for change….created by five “lifers” who are all students in the seminary program at the Darrington Unit.

No Mercy for Texas Juveniles Sent to Prison

 With the 85th session of the Texas legislature almost in the history books, there is no good news about juveniles sent to adult prisons. A variety of bills were filed from HB 122 to Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 to HB 1274 and SB 556 that were designed to give those sentenced as juveniles to long sentences a Second Look after 20 years. All these bills had some bi-partisan support and none of them got to the point of a vote in either the house or the senate.
Texas is one of six states that have yet to Raise the Age. Every two years attempt are made to make this change. Every time evidence from around the country is offered in support of the moral, financial, and public safety reasons to pass this common sense legislation. For reasons unknown to this writer, it sits on the backburner.
The Second Look bills are supported by Supreme Court rulings, neuroscience , basic common sense, as well as religious teachings about forgiveness and redemption. None of this makes any differences when it comes to politics. The way the system works, one person in the legislature, or one outside protest, can prevent a practical, sensible, widely supported bill, head to the trash bin. Advocates state that at least one of the bills moved out of committee and almost made it to a vote. In my book that is extremely small “progress”. A look at legislative action on criminal justice matters reveals a pattern of inadequate bills and snail paced change. In Texas, elected officials seem more concerned with who uses what bathroom and similar matters that reflect the personal preferences of the officials as opposed to the will of the voters. Polls by Right on Crime have shown that voters want more reform than politicians are willing to propose.
Conclusion: A new strategy to achieve transformation of the existing criminal justice system is needed. The “nibbling at the edges” approach preferred by legislators has no chance of bringing about changes that actually achieve the stated objectives of the system. More on that later.



Twenty years ago, Aaron Dyson, having just turned seventeen made a mistake that would dictate the rest of his life. His life long friend was murdered over a clash about a girl. The murderer was arrested and Aaron spent the subsequent months clipping all newspaper articles about the crime and legal aftermath….he was having trouble accepting the murder of his best friend. His difficulty dealing with such a loss was noted by his grandmother and parents. They talked with him about it, but, in typical teenage male fashion, he was convinced he could deal with it.

When the murderer was scheduled for a bail hearing, the parents of the victim asked Aaron to go to the hearing with them. Aaron got there late, saw the killer walking down the street, and after a few words, yielded to his impulse for revenge and shot him in broad daylight in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The victim recovered. His immature and misguided attempt to get an eye for an eye resulted, naturally, in a prison sentence. Back in the 90’s the idea of “tough on crime” was at its height and Aaron paid the price…..50 years in prison. He has now been there 20 years and is hoping that a bill in the Texas legislature, HB 1274, will give him a chance at parole this year, or next, instead of waiting till 2023.

Included here is a fine article by Brandi Grissom of the Dallas Morning News about Aaron’s story and the bill. His story is just one on many in which Texas teenagers have been sentenced to long prison terms for non-homicide crimes.



Texas legislators are considering two Second Look bills during the 85th session. SB 556 and HB 1274. The basic idea is to change the current requirement that individuals convicted and sentenced to prison for 3g {violent crimes} must serve half their sentences before parole review. These two bills focus on those individuals convicted before the age of eighteen. The change to existing requirements proposed in each bill makes parole review possible after 20 years, or half the sentence, whichever is less.

HB 1274 has had a public hearing { 3-21-17 } during which all the testimony was for the bill. This comes as no surprise to those familiar with neuro-science research on juvenile brains in the last ten years. What this shows is that male brains don’t fully mature till around the mid twenties. Some use this evidence to prove the diminished culpability of juveniles as a mitigating factor in case disposition. In theory, this evidence would encourage the District Attorney and Judge to consider this evidence in arriving at a resolution of the cases before them. This bill , however, jumps forward twenty years from prison entry, to state that these prisoners deserve somewhat earlier parole review because of their age at the time of the crime.

In no way does this bill guarantee parole after twenty years…..all it does is provide an opportunity for review. Such a formula based approach to parole review flies in the face of the evidence based methods now preferred in most reform proposals. It continues the decades long pattern of “one size fits all” approach to dealing with inmates. It is supported by the notion that ” the punishment should fit the crime”. The United States Supreme Court does not support this formula based approach to juveniles. It has stated clearly over the last five years that because juveniles are different, they should not be treated the same as adults. The mitigating factors of young age need to be considered when juveniles are involved in the criminal justice system.

HB 1274 is a very small step in the direction of common sense parole review. Legislation in other states sets earlier review times….10 to 15 years. If neuroscience evidence was the basis for review, the first one would take place at age 25…..when maturity has been achieved. Since juveniles have a much greater ability to change, a review at 25 would determine their actual growth and development. In addition it would provide valuable information about readiness for release. Such a review is not part of this bill….maybe down the road somewhere.

Support Texas Second Chance Bills for Juveniles

Aaron is one of about 650 current Texas prisoners sentenced as juveniles to terms of 35 years or more for non-homicide offenses. Current policies require that anyone convicted of a violent offense must serve one half of their sentence before first parole review.
It makes no difference if, like Aaron, one has a great record as a prisoner and has earned certificates in numerous programs. Aaron got 50 years for taking the law into his own hands at age 17, and doing something many have no problem with…..though it was definitely against the law. He shot and injured the guy who murdered his life long friend. In an immoral twist of justice, the killer was sentenced to 30 years. It is safe to assume that if Aaron could have afforded a legal team like Ken Paxton he would have received a more appropriate, and shorter sentence. But, instead of being a free man after 20 years in prison the TDCJ website says he will be parole eligible on Jan 6, 2023.
Even if Aaron had a prior record that indicated serious problems as a juvenile, and a pattern of bad choices, he still should not have received such a long sentence. In reality, his prior record was Driving Without a Seat Belt and Driving Too Slow. It is thus safe to conclude that his sentence was more about scoring political points than about his threat to public safety. It is well known that teenage boys often make poor choices…….no surprise really, because they are not mature, are not thinking about consequences, and often act impulsively. That’s why youths have none of the adult rights until they are 18 (except to be treated as one by a jury). Even that age, as neuro science has confirmed, is questionable since male brains don’t really mature till their mid-twenties. However, when he got sentenced, the idea of “tough on crime” encouraged prosecutors to be extremely harsh. Had he been arrested in Travis County instead of Tarrant County, he would, very likely, have received a more age appropriate sentence.
This legislative session, lawmakers in Austin will be considering Senate Bill 556 and House Bill1274. Both bills offer an earlier chance for parole to men like Aaron. The bills state that parole consideration be given after half the sentence is served, or twenty years, whichever is less. Approval of this bill would give Aaron a parole review this year. While I consider both bills totally inadequate….twenty years for a teenager for a first offense (non homicide)?…….they represent the risk averse steps lawmakers are comfortable with. In view of that I recommend everyone support them.
In order for each bill to be considered by the full House or Senate, they must be approved at the committee level. Therefore I highly recommend that you send letters to all the members of these two committees. To get their contact info just google Texas Senate/House Members. Call them as well, and encourage your friends to do the same.

Here are their names.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee SB556
CHAIR John Whitmire
VICE-CHAIR Joan Huffman
MEMBERS: Brian Birdwell, Konni Burton, Brandon Creighton, Sylvia R. Garcia, Bryan Hughes, José Menéndez, Charles Perry
House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee HB1274
CHAIR Joe Moody
VICE-CHAIR Todd Hunter
Members: Terry Canales, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Cole Hefner, Mike Lang, Terry Wilson
A flood of support for these bills will increase their chance for passage. SO, DO NOT HESITATE…..TAKE ACTION NOW!!!!. Do it for Aaron, and all other prisoners who deserve, and have earned, a second chance at freedom and re-unification with their family and friends.
If you have time to help in other ways, let me know.

Visitation in Prison

Visitation in Prison

The following piece is a small portion of the “Responsible Prison Project” compiled by 5 Texas prisoners interested in improving the prison experience and helping meet the  TDCJ mission. To see the entire report: http://www.businessinsider.com/five-texas-prisoners-do-things-differently-if-they-ran-prisons-2016-10

Visitation in Prison: Studies based on reduced recidivism consistently show that visitation is one of the most effective methods of helping to rehabilitate an inmate. TDCJ recognizes this. Therefore, much attention should be given by Texas prison administrators to making visitation as comfortable as possible, without violating security.
While TDCJ’s visitation rules are uniform, the application of them throughout all Texas prisons is not. TIFA performed a survey of families who have visited their loved ones in more than one Texas prison. The overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that visitation rules are applied differently at the various units and that interpretation of the rules is subject to unit administration.
Not only are the rules applied differently throughout TDCJ, the facilities and the refreshments available are not the same either. For example, Wynne Unit does not have outside visitation, even though it has the facilities for it. Darrington Unit’s non- contact visitation area is not conducive to visitation because it is extremely noise due to the lack of echo-absorbent material on the walls and ceilings and the Plexiglas covering the visitation screens, and the same is generally true for all TDCJ units built before 1987. Wynne Unit sells ice cream in vending machines, but most other units do not. Some units have sandwiches and salads available for purchase, but most units have only junk food.
The price of the refreshments is a serious issue also. For example, a recent visitor at Darrington Unit paid $1.50 for a “Nutty Bar”; this same item is sold in the unit  commissary at a price of sixfor $1.45-which equates to a price discrepancy of more than 600%. Without question, the items sold at visitation are another example of price- gouging loved ones of inmates.This also raises the question of whether TDCJ is profiting from these vending sales.

.10TDCJ’s visitation policy states, «visitation is an integral component of the rehabilitation process and every effort will be made to ensure that visits are conducted under the least restrictive protocol available.”This statement is untrue, however. When compared with the visitation rules and regulations of other state prison systems and the federal prison system, TDCJ is one of the most restrictive inits protocol.

Another problem with visitation is overcrowding. Many families, especially during holiday weekends, may have to wait up to several hours for space availability before they can visit their incarcerated loved one. This discourages families from visiting. Part of this problem is the limited space available and TDCJ’s unwillingness to expand visitation areas, and part of the problem is that visitation is only permitted on Saturday and Sunday.
Due to the size and expanse of Texas, most families have to travel several hundred miles round trip just to see their loved one for two hours.11 This trip is quite expensive, averaging approximately $200 for gas, food, photos, etc., for inmate supporters to see their loved one. As a result, unless an inmate is fortunate enough to be in close proximity to his loved one, he does not receive visits regularly.


Visitation areas, especially contact areas, should be significantly expanded. Currently, allprofits from TDCJ’s inmate commissary are to be used tofund educational and recreational programsfor inmates. Each year, however, there is a surplus of at least
$5 million of thoseprofits that goes back into the State’s generalfund. Instead ofplacing
11 TDCJ acknowledges in its Visitation Rules and Regulations that “while it isrecognized that unit assignments may create hardships for visiting, assignments are based on considerations other than offender or family convenience.”

the funds of inmates’ Loved ones into the general fond, this money could instead be used to expand visitation areas by the purchase of portable buildings and/or providing a larger outside visitation area.
All visits should be extended from two hours to four hours in length, regardless of distance traveled. This would encourage visitors to drive the long distances-200 miles one way in many instances-to maintain a bond with their incarcerated loved one.
The objection regarding overcrowding would be moot if TDCJ would use commissary profits to expand visitation areas.

Considering TDCJ operates on the “least restrictive protocol” visitation policy, all inmates who maintain an S3 trusty classification status for more than one year should have all visits as contact visits instead of contact with only their immediate families as the policy is now.13 The current policy states that only S2-classified inmates (which are outside trusty inmates, housed in a trusty camp) are eligiblefor all visits to be contact. More than 60% of TDCJ’s population , however, are violent offenders and do not qualifyfor such classification; the highest classification they can earn is S3. These
inmates, however, are usually well-behaved. Therefore, if an inmate earns an S3 status and maintains that status for at least a year-thereby reflecting proper “institutional adjustment”-he should qualify for contact visits with all of his visitors. This would fall in line with the “least restrictive protocol” TDCJ claims to embrace. Other prison systems use an even lesser-restrictive protocol than this proposal. TDCJ would do well to

13 Exceptions would be made for inmates with visitation restrictions, such as no contact with children.

implement their policies. Doing so would promote positive behavior among the offender population and help reintegrate offenders into society by encouraging visitation most conducive to rehabilitation, according to studies on this subject.
Visitation days should be expanded beyond just the weekends. If visitation
were also allowed on Monday and Friday, for example, the overcrowding on Saturday and Sunday would be significantly alleviated. This would also further encourage visits with the inmates since employees who must work weekends would have the opportunity to visit during the week TDCJ should look at the many other prison systems that do this and implement their practices.
The prison visitation areas should provide wider, healthier food selections at all prisons. That may require the Legislature to enact laws requiring fruit, vegetable, and sandwich machines placed in all visitation areas, similar to legislation for school districts. Also, if TDCJ profits from vending sales, these kickbacks should be discontinued to decrease prices of vending machine snacks and to encourage inmate visits with no profit to TDCJ’s general fund.
TDCJ should also consider permitting families to purchase food to be delivered during the visit. Families could order food from Domino’s or Jimmy John’s, for example, pay for it before they enter the prison gate, and have it delivered to the prison during the visit. The meal could be run through the x-ray machine and inspected visually to ensure no contraband is present before being handed over to the visitor.14 Other prison systems permit such activities without security encroachments.

14 TDCJ will resist this because it is labor intensive. Officers are paid to do a job, however, like any other employee and should therefore have no problem earning the money they are paid.

Family activity opportunities, such as board games, should be provided by TDCJ in the visitation areas. Currently, children are provided coloring books and crayons, so providing board games should not be problematic. Such family activities should be actively encouraged.
Photos capture memories, and they are cherished by inmates and visitors alike. Currently, photos are taken by TDCJ staff one weekend per month from November through August and every weekend during September and October, at a cost o.f $3 per picture. This policy should be changed to permit photos to be taken every weekend so all inmates have the same opportunity to take photos with their loved ones.
Most officers treat the visitors with respect, but some treat the visitors as extensions of the inmate and therefore felonious themselves. Officers who may be scheduled to work visitation should be trained in how to treat visitors; they should be reminded that visitors are non-criminals in the criminal justice equation and should be treated with respect at all times. Visitors should therefore be allowed some avenue to make a formal complaint against officers working visitation, and once the officer receives three similar complaints, they should be permanently restricted from working visitation and proper administrative actions should be taken against them by TDCJ.
While it is unlikely that TDCJ would seriously review this idea, conjugal visits should be considered. According to a study done by Yale University, conjugal visits are permitted in some form in approximately 20% of all American prison systems (nine out of fifty-one, including the federal system). Conjugal visits would potentially reduce sexual misconduct in prison, and would also strengthen the family bond.

Video visitation should be permitted for visitors who are unable to drive long distances to see their loved ones, but this should in no way replace physical visits.

Prison Business

Prison Business

Both juveniles and adults populate the vast American prison business systems. This method of dealing with those who break the law has been around for centuries. While modern day American prisons do a somewhat better job of responding to the actual needs of prisoners, they have a very long way to go before actually dealing effectively with those sentenced to them.

The costs of incarcerating people, guilty or not, and needing it or not, have risen as the population has exploded. Those costs have always been born by those not sent to prison….American taxpayers. Basically, prisons are like businesses without the accountability demanded of for profit businesses. Anyone familiar with how business works, knows that if a business has a product return rate of 25% and more, it is not sustainable. A prison is essentially a business without the accountability demanded by investors. Yet, prisons, as we know them, receive annual funding irrespective of their “product” success or failure. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice receives about 3.3 billion every year. Any private business with that amount of spending would never escape accountability…..but such has been the case.

Imagine what would happen if businessmen were to be put in charge of prisons. They would not care about partisan politics, or re-election…..they would be focused on how to improve the bottom line. They would take a practical look at what works and change what doesn’t. They would not keep those ready for released locked up way beyond necessary because it would waste too much money. The kind of change they would initiate would pale in comparison to the tiny incremental change currently fashionable among the partisan politicians currently in charge.

It seems the endless lust for punishment has blinded the senses of those who perpetuate the failed systems in place throughout our great country. The time for something bigger and bolder is long overdue. In the article linked here, such a vision is proposed by William R. Kelly, professor at the University of Texas.


Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts: Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.

Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.

What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.

“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”

Attorney Joshua Dohan believes in the idea of “positive youth development” to help juveniles work toward a brighter future.Courtesy of Joshua Dohan

A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.

For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.

“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”

Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.

“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”

Through an educational partnership, the Boston Department of Youth Services invites Boston Public Library authors to connect to youth using books that reflect their lived experiences. Here, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, authors of “All American Boy,” visit a DYS facility.Courtesy of Department of Youth Services

At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.

Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.

Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.

“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”

Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”

In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)

Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.

And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”

In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.

Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.

Read more: http://nationswell.com/massachusetts-juvenile-criminal-justice-makeover/#ixzz4YCLYT4am