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Mentoring: Best Practices for High Risk Youth

As Reclaiming Futures sites look for ways to connect youth with long-term supports, many of them turn to one-on-one mentoring programs. Several sites are utilizing law students from local universities as their sources for these mentors, while other sites try to build up connections with the natural helpers in a youth‘s life, such as a parent or relative.

Mentoring has been shown to be an effective intervention for working with high-risk youth. An evaluation of the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters mentoring program by Public/ Private Ventures (P/PV) demonstrated that mentored youth were:

  • 46% less likely than controls to initiate drug use
  • 27% less likely to initiate alcohol use than controls

These findings were even more significant for minority participants who were 70% less likely to initiate drug use and 50% less likely to initiate alcohol use.

So what makes certain mentoring programs more successful than others?

A New Approach to School Discipline in Walla Walla, Washington

The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.”


And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

“The kid still got a consequence,” explains Sporleder – but he wasn’t sent home, a place where there wasn’t anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn’t do. He went to ISS — in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk about anything with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words “namby-pamby”, “weenie”, or “not the way they did things in my day” start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)

798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
50 expulsions
600 written referrals
2010-2011 (After new approach)

135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
30 expulsions
320 written referrals

“It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about the new approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away.”

Cutting Youth Incarceration Doesn’t Cut Public Safety, says Bart Lubow

Bart Lubow, who has been working for more than 20 years to reduce the number of youth being sent to detention centers, told a gathering of approximately 700 conference attendees last week that now “may prove to be a unique moment in juvenile justice history, a time when, as a nation, we shed some of the system’s worst baggage—including our unnecessary and often inappropriate reliance on secure confinement” of youth.

The conference attendees were in Houston for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative conference, which as its name implies is working to reduce the number of youth sent into detention and instead aims to provide community-centered alternatives. The conference is hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Apparently the 19-year quest is working. Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Casey Foundation, told the gathering that “JDAI sites have reduced reliance on secure detention overall by 42 percent, with numerous jurisdictions posting reductions in excess of 50 percent.” All of this happening without compromising public safety, he said.

The quest in the end means, in Lubow’s words, “We need to detain the right kids, but only the right kids.”

Covering the Juvenile Justice System: Kids Behind Bars, the Role of the Media and More

Our friends at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) spent this week at the Kids Behind Bars: Where's the Justice in America's Juvenile Justice System? conference in New York, discussing the juvenile justice system and the role of the media in reporting facts (good) and sensationalizing stories (bad). 

Their takeaways are relevant for journalists and bloggers but also for readers of this blog, many of whom work with(in) the juvenile system. During day 1 of the John Jay Symposium, speakers discussed:

  • the now discounted superpredator theory from the 1990s and the role of the press in perpetuating it
  • research findings showing that the human brain does not reach full maturity until the mid-20s
  • the importance of mentoring
  • disproportionate minority contact
  • school discipline policies
  • juvenile justice reform efforts

School Discipline: When Should Law Enforcement Step In?

This week, several schools and districts are grappling with the issue of when—if ever—it is appropriate for police officers to get involved with school discipline issues.

The Albuquerque school district, for example, is currently the defendant in a class action lawsuit over referring students to law enforcement for allegedly minor offenses. When a student was talking to her friend and refused to return to her seat, her teacher called the police.

In contrast, a Georgia six-year-old throwing a violent tantrum—which included destruction of property and assault, according to published reports—was arrested and taken away in a police cruiser. She was also put in handcuffs while in the cruiser, according to standard department policy, but to the outrage of many.

Funding Opportunity: Improve Treatment for Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System

In case you missed it: The Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are looking for communities interested in implementing the Reclaiming Futures model. And they have $1.325 million (over 4 years) in funding to give away. 

From the request for proposals:

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is pleased to announce that it is seeking applications for funding under the FY 2012 Juvenile Drug Courts/Reclaiming Futures program. This program furthers the Department’s mission by building the capacity of states, state and local courts, units of local government, and Indian tribal governments to develop and establish juvenile drug courts for substance abusing juvenile offenders.

The deadline is May 16, 2012, so apply today! We look forward to working with you!

Florida: Transferring Teens from Juvenile Court to Adult Court Isn't Reducing Violent Crime Rates

According to recent figures from the Department of Justice, national youth violence rates are currently half what they were in the 90s. In Florida in particular, rates of violent youth crime dropped 57% between 1995 and 2010. And Florida transfers more young offenders to adult criminal court than any other state in the nation.

However, it's important to note that Florida's falling rates of violent juvenile crime are NOT caused by transferring kids to the adult criminal system. 

Dr. Jeffrey Butts has a must-read op-ed in today's Orlando Sentinel, detailing why transferring troubled kids to adult court does not actually reduce violent crime rates. He writes:

If Florida prosecutors were correct [in their belief that trying youth in adult courts has decreased violent crime rates], these variations in the falling rate of juvenile violence would follow a pattern. Namely, we would see the largest crime declines in the states that transferred the most juveniles to criminal court.

Florida's use of transfer (approximately 165 transfers per 100,000 youth population) is nearly double that of its closest competitors, Oregon and Arizona (96 and 84 per 100,000, respectively). Yet, both of those states beat Florida in the crime drop.

In fact, the state with the lowest use of transfer was Ohio at 20 per 100,000, but Ohio's crime decline of 74 percent was the steepest of all six states.

If Florida transfers far more juveniles to criminal court than any other state and yet the state's crime decline is about average, then it is simply wrong to credit criminal-court transfer for recent reductions in youth violence.

Juvenile Mental Health Court in DC Shows Early Success

In Washington D.C., juveniles charged with certain offenses (including some misdemeanors and non-violent, low-level felonies) and diagnosed with a mental illness, can apply to be diverted to a specialized mental health court.

There, under the guidance of Judge Joan Goldfrank, youths are held accountable for their specific problem behavior—such as school attendance, substance abuse, or avoiding mental health treatment.

Early results are encouraging: out of the 56 enrolled in 2011, only eight were subsequently re-arrested. This rate, 14 percent, is far lower than the average re-arrest rates out of D.C.’s general juvenile courts, which hovers around forty percent.

Journal of Juvenile Justice: Call for Articles

OJJDP's peer-reviewed Journal of Juvenile Justice is accepting article submissions for its third and fourth issues, with the third issue being released in October of 2012.

The recently released second issue includes articles on school learning in a rural juvenile detention facility, arrest histories among homeless youth, juvenile reentry and reintegration, community truancy boards, polygraph testing and assessment tools.

From the second issue's forward by OJJDP Acting Administrator Melodee Hanes:

As I begin my tenure as the Acting Administrator at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), one of my top priorities is to ensure that our partners in the field have ready access to the latest juvenile justice research and evaluation findings. Consequently, I am pleased to present the second issue of the Journal of Juvenile Justice (JOJJ)—OJJDP’s online peer-reviewed journal. I am particularly pleased to note that the intended audience for JOJJ is both practitioners and researchers. Prior to coming to OJJDP, I spent more than 16 years as a deputy county attorney prosecuting child abuse, sexual assault, and homicide cases. I know firsthand the importance—and the challenges—of getting this type of valuable information to professionals in the field.

JMATE 2012: Bad Kids or Hurt Kids? The Compelling Need for a Trauma Informed Juvenile Justice System

Starting in 2010, there's been a policy shift around drugs, addiction and treatment, and it could not have come at a better time, explained David Mineta (deputy director of demand reduction at ONDCP) at yesterday's JMATE plenary. More Americans are dying from drug use than from any other kind of accidental death, including car crashes and gun wounds. "This is a public health problem," stressed Mineta, before explaining that the ONDCP is prioritizing prevention, treatment and diversion programs in its forthcoming 2012 national drug control strategy. [editor's note: we'll share this as soon as it's out]

"Addiction can be overcome and recovery is absolutely possible," said Mineta. "And we need to make sure our young people have the brightest future possible. It's personal for us."  

Following Mineta's moving keynote on addiction and prevention measures, Kris Buffington addressed the issue of trauma and its impact on adolescents.

Buffington explained that traumatic experinces can substantially impact biological, psychological and social development in youth. And unfortunately, symptoms associated with exposure to traumatic events are often misinterpreted as indicating a young person has a behavioral disorder.