Changing the Juvenile Court - How to Get Buy-In

Gregg Roth, Reclaiming Futures Nassau County, NY from Reclaiming Futures NPO on Vimeo.

[Gregg Roth is a prosecutor in the Nassau County Juvenile Drug Treatment Court and a member of the Nassau County Juvenile Drug Treatment Court/Reclaiming Futures Change Team. -Ed.]

When Nassau County, NY decided it wanted to address the needs of all substance abusing juvenile offenders in the county, it decided its first step would be to establish a juvenile drug court. To make it successful, our team made a conscious effort to reach out to relevant stakeholders. For example, I wrote an article about the juvenile court for Nassau Lawyer, and I spoke to about 75 juvenile defense attorneys. (You can see my speech by clicking on the video above.) 
We're using similar strategies to get buy-in to Reclaiming Futures, by reaching out to the Nassau County Executive and Commissioners, representatives from state agencies, and local community members. I thought other communities might be interested in how I figured out what to say to my colleagues about making fundamental changes in how the juvenile court works with teens who have problems with drugs and alcohol, so I wrote the article below.
What appeals to me most about my job as a prosecutor of juveniles is that my goal, my mandate, is to help the children, not punish them. Even so, I had a healthy dose of skepticism for the concept of a juvenile drug treatment court and Reclaiming Futures. Did we need another layer of court proceedings? Did my community really need to change the way it was addressing the needs of our youth? It sounded like extra bureaucracy to me. However, the more training I received, the more research I did, the more I learned about other drug treatment court programs, the more I become convinced that this was, indeed, the answer to the problem.
But I spent over a year being taught and learning. How would we convince the children’s defense bar, the attorneys who regularly represent the juveniles in these proceedings, to include their clients in this program? More specifically, how would we convince these lawyers to convince their clients? We certainly couldn’t expect them to spend a year or more attending conferences and webinars, weekly meetings and reading literature. Of course, we offered incentives for the clients, such as being released from probation early, vacating findings of juvenile delinquency and sealing and expunging records. Yes, those items might be attractive to the lawyer, but would not necessarily mean anything to a fourteen-year-old.
The goal, as I saw it, was more than convincing the lawyers that this was a “good thing.” The goal was to get them excited about the project. If they were excited about it, they would be more likely to sell the project to their clients, as opposed to just explaining it to them as another option. Having figured that out, the problem became how to do that.
We were being given essentially one opportunity. One night in April, 2008, we were gathering all of these lawyers in a room, about 75 of them, to try to sell the program to them. But in the weeks leading up to the meeting, I was having trouble coming up with a decent sales pitch. Maybe I was being pessimistic about our defense bar, but I was convinced that just telling them about details and figures and legal maneuvers would not get the job done. I just wasn’t sure what would. But a few days before the meeting, it hit me: if I could convey to them how excited I was about the project, if I made it personal to me, that might translate to some of them. So I started to think about it in those terms.
I started assessing just how excited this project, our juvenile drug treatment court and Reclaiming Futures, had made me. It was a little hard to quantify, because I realized I had nothing to compare it to. I had never been as excited about any other aspect of my career, I had never been involved in some thing so worthwhile, something that I thought was going to make a community-wide, life-changing impact on so many people. So as I stood before the lawyers, that’s exactly what I told them. I made it personal, about me: how this was a career-changing experience, and I thought it would be a life-changing experience for their clients and their clients’ families. It’s an approach I highly recommend. I believe it helped them see the project as something tangible. Also, by making it personal, I conveyed that I had made a commitment to it. It seemed to resonate with them.
The drug court opened last May. Our first graduation is around the corner. Since that day about one year ago, only one of those lawyers expressed reluctance about the program to me. Twenty or so others have enrolled their clients in the program. Even more have expressed interest in it. The feedback so far has been almost universally positive. And we’re really just at the beginning.

Related Post: Check out these recommendations from the American Bar Association about representing juvenile status offenders.

Updated: February 08 2018