Category Archives: teens in prison

ReImagining Prisons For Teens and Adults

American prisons hold far too many teens and adults at too great a social and financial cost. Mountains of books and articles have been written about incarceration in America. Right now there is widespread interest in finally getting serious about changes that have long been needed. If polls were the determining factor used by politicians, significant changes would happen soon. But lawmakers are poll-iticians. Instead they reflect long held personal moral, religious or philosophical beliefs that have more to do with staying in office and satisfying funders. Our correctional systems are dominated by a law enforcement mentality that emphasizes retribution, obedience, control and security.

The well known failure of prisons to change behavior is seen in recidivism rates. But then, how could they possibly succeed in providing prisoners with tools for post release success when there is no established vision, or funding, to accomplish that? Fortunately there are an increasing number of individuals inside and outside of prison who have seen the need to move beyond the kind of snail pace change that has been acceptable to date. The problems are diverse and deeply rooted in history. Up to now the immensity of the problem has resulted in only incremental advancements.

Fortunately, the folks at the Vera Institute of Justice are not mired in that old thinking. They have launched the ReImagining Prison Project that has all the hallmarks of a needed revolution in correctional thinking and practice. They not only incorporate a vast array of available knowledge from many parts of America but have been instrumental in establishing a pilot project for emerging youth in a Connecticut prison. This is modeled after prisons in Germany that have been designed on the basic principle of recognizing and promoting human dignity. A very worthwhile read for anyone interested in transformation of the systems we are familiar with.

https://www.vera.org/reimagining-prison-web-report#directors-note

 

 

Re-visiting Excessive Teen Prison Sentences

In the upcoming Texas legislative session, the Second Look bill concerning excessive sentences for teenagers will be resubmitted for consideration. That bill, establishing earlier parole eligibility for juveniles sentenced to long prison terms, is supported by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that clearly state that underage youth are different and should not be treated as though they were adults. Every parent knows this and neuroscience research proves that the brains of emerging adults do not mature till the early to mid twenties.

For example, the Second Look bill, as currently written, would offer a prisoner, sentenced to 50 years, a chance at parole after 20 years, rather than ½ the sentence (or 25 years) mandated by current law. My question is: Why, in the face of clear evidence, does the proposed bill set first review at 20 years? While that is a slight improvement over the requirement to serve half the time, it is still another “one size fits all” prescription that, like so many other parts of the system, ignores individual differences. Answer? When it come to dealing with lawbreakers, lawmakers have long been only willing to make very small changes to very big problems.

The last big change in sentencing guidelines occurred at the stroke of midnight on August 31, 1993. That was when anyone convicted of a violent crime was required to serve half their time before parole consideration. Prior to that, the law set minimum time served at ¼ of the sentence. That change was not based on evidence of the effectiveness of long sentences but was largely political. It was a response to public fear of crime that had been inflamed by extensive media coverage of an alleged youth crime wave. Whatever the reason, it was a continuation of the broad-brush approach that has become the accepted way to deal with lawbreakers.

Second Lookers are the current prisoners, convicted as juveniles, during that “tough on crime” era, and sent to adult prisons. Most of them have been there 20 years or more. Many of them have long since matured and outgrown those behaviors that got them in trouble. Questions naturally arise: Is it in the public interest to continue incarceration of inmates who have demonstrated readiness for release? What is the moral or economic justification for keeping those individuals behind bars? Is it finally time to implement the idea that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at”?

Second Look is a small step in that direction. Perhaps, in the near future, further changes will be recommended that reflect proposed changes to the Model Penal Code. Since 1960, the MPC has long guided legislator’s decisions regarding criminal justice policy. Now, after 15 years of nationwide research, the American Law Institute is recommending changes to the sentencing portion of the Code. The new position regarding sentencing of juveniles recommends first parole review at 10 years. This is a radical shift but reflects the latest knowledge available about the most appropriate way to deal with juvenile offenders. It fits entirely with this comment from the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch………

“ Youths who commit crimes should be held accountable, but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation”.

Teens Are Not Adults

He grew up in a society that supports the death penalty, all lesser forms of punishment, and places a high value on guns. So it was not surprising that when, at age 17, his lifelong friend was murdered, thoughts of revenge would not leave his immature brain. Months later, during a confrontation with the killer who was out on bail, he yielded to the impulse to hurt back, and shot him. The victim survived, and later, both were sentenced to prison. The murderer got 30 years, and that guy, who failed to get an eye for an eye, got 50 years.

His name is Aaron. Today, 20 years later, he’s still in prison because of a law that requires he “serve” half his time before any consideration for release. Unlike outside the walls, were hard work, dependability and persistence gets rewarded, inside it makes not the slightest bit of difference. There are no incentives for demonstrating personal responsibility…….except for a credit system that was intended to offset the fact that inmates get paid nothing for their work.

All prisoners are eligible to earn credits for good behavior and even more for actively participating in work….it’s called good time/work time credits. Those credits can be used to somewhat shorten the time for parole eligibility. If, you are in prison for a violent offense, however, you can earn those credits but not use them.

Those who study human behavior know that incentives have been proven to have much more positive results than punishment. That knowledge has yet to be incorporated into the prison system…..to the detriment of prisoners, staff, future victims and every taxpayer whose money subsidizes counter productive policies.

The issues here are many…here are a few:

1: Treating a juvenile like an adult when he has none of the legal rights of adult. Add to that the fact that neuroscience has proven that, until the mid twenties, most brains are not fully mature…..a fact that contributes to young people making non-rational decisions. Any parent knows the truth of that finding.

2: The lack of incentives in prison contributes to a lack of hope. Absense of hope is contrary to the stated mission of the prison system that is to “promote positive change in offender behavior”.

3: Extreme sentence for youths, along with mandatory minimums, totally disregard individual differences and their proven potential to change.

4: The primary purpose of incarceration is punishment based…..incapacitation… with the main focus on security and control. Underfunded educational, vocational, substance abuse and mental health programming, guarantees higher recidivism rates. The consequent costs get passed on to future victims and taxpayers.

5: Release from prison needs to be based on more than outdated and “one size fits all” policies put in place by politicians….most of whom have neither experience, or training, in how to create environments that promote scoailly responsible behavior.

Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Reform

There is general agreement that there are too many teenagers and adults in prison. The link to the poll below clearly shows that an overwhelming number of Americans support significant reform to the manycriminal justoice systems. This is in stark contrast to those who have created and perpetuate these systems as the are……lawmakers of all parties. Actually that is somewhat of a simplification since there is a growing number of lawmakers, on both sids of the aisle who see the need for reform. The ad news is that they are not the majority, and thus the pace of reform continues like a snail. Hopefully this new poll will encourage those who continue to believe that “tough on crime” is the way to keep their job that the time has come to change.

When more than 75% of responders support reform, politicians need to listen….a fact that is exactly in line with their role as representatives of the people. This poll re-affirms an earlier poll by Right on Crime a part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation). That poll made it quite clear that a large majority of Texans support alternatives to incarceration. The fidings of both polls prove that a large majority of people want smart on crime to play at least as large a role as tough. There is widespread agreement that punishment has a place but that it should be fair and proportional. When the system in place mandates that a person convicted of a violent offense must servehalf their sentence (mandatory minimum) before parole consideration, that is neither fair nor proportional because each situation is different. Texas has tried the “one size fits all” approach of punishment to fit the crime. The time has come to forget the broad brush and make punishment/treatment fit the individual.

americans support criminal justice reform

 

 

PROSECUTORIAL POWER AND TEENS

Everyone who goes to criminal court encounters a prosecutor These individuals have a tremendous amount of power. It is up to them how to charge an individual arrested for law breaking. Since the District Attorney is often elected, their decisions are sometimes based on the political ramifications of what they decide. If they happen to have an old school “tough on crime” attitude, they may well “throw the book” at those who stand before them. If they live in a rural county as opposed to an urban county they may well charge differently, and request longer sentences than if they were working in an urban center. Teir decisions migt also be impacted by the quality of the defense attorney. The majority of folks in criminal court are less educated and less economically advantaged. Usually that means they cannot afford the highest quality defense and thus usually get more harsh treatment than that secured by a high caliber legal defense team.

Fortunately, we now appear to be entring a time when more and more prosecutors are starting to think outside the box. That means that they are not so beholden to tradition…..to the strategies of being as harsh as possible, and thus filling our prisons with more than they can, or should hold. Some of them are now beginning to look at the individual circumstances of each case and making decisions accordingly, instead of using a broad brush, less personal approach. So there is real reason for hope. The “one size fits all” approach has been tried for decades. Available evidence shows that the results do not justify that philosphy. When individuals are labeled, and put into categories, the dehumanization process begins. Once they are sent to prison, that process acclerates and the result is recidivism rates that harm communities and have too high a price tag.

The video attached here is by a prosecutor who points out how others like him can use creativity to maximize positive outcomes. This works especially well with teenagers.

JUVENILES MATURE IN PRISON AT GREAT COST

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.

JUVENILE SENT TO ADULT PRISON -20 YEARS AGO

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.

https://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas-legislature/2017/04/08/convicted-murderer-wants-man-shot-get-prison

SECOND LOOK FOR TEXAS TEENS 2017

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.
Wolf

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