Blog: Public Policy

"Beyond 'Scared Straight'" Program “Incoherent” According to Conflict Management Expert

juvenile-justice-reform_beyond-scared-straight-North-CarolinaThe premier episode of the new season of the controversial reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” adheres to the themes that made it A&E’s most watched show: a small group of at-risk youth spend the day in prison where they are yelled at, intimidated and humiliated by sheriff’s deputies and inmates alike. The screaming and threats of prison rape are followed by emotional conversations with the inmates as they describe to the teens where they went wrong and how the teens can avoid the same fate.

The episode features Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s “Reality Program,” created by Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey.
“Our Reality Program stresses education, not intimidation,” Bailey is quoted as saying on the program’s website.
According to the website, the mission of the program is to “provide the community with a program which will help educate young people about the long-term effects of participating in criminal activity.”
After watching the show, non-violent communication and conflict management expert Dr. Heather Pincock was baffled.
“There is no coherent approach in the diversion program,” Pincock said. “Most of the episode they [the deputies] were there to intimidate the youth or break the youth down or humiliate them. Then they suddenly start saying. ‘We’re your friends, we’re here to help you.’ There are very mixed messages around their role. It doesn’t make any sense.”

On "Scared Straight" -- From a Personal Experience

juvenile-justice-system_televisionI just watched the first episode of this season of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight.” This was my first exposure to the show. has covered the details of this program and experts have weighed in about it in this space, from knowledgeable, yet slightly removed positions. [Scroll down for related posts on the Reclaiming Futures blog. -- Ed.]
For me, however, it was a strange and personal experience. Watching the show I was flooded by memories of my own time in prison, both as a young man and as an older prisoner in contact with “at-risk youth.” I felt waves of emotion, mostly negative, as I watched fear and intimidation used, along with a smattering of humane connection, to bring about change in these young people.
When I first arrived at the youth prison in Alto (a notorious prison at the time in north Georgia) in 1985, I was placed in a dorm. The officer told us that if we were fighting and refused to stop when he called “break,” he would “bust our ‘tater” with his billy club.
This same officer, after catching me in an infraction, had me squat and walk around the dorm, quacking like a duck. I did this because I feared refusing and facing more severe punishment. This memory came back to me as I watched a similar scene on the show. The use of mindless exercise as punishment seemed similarly sadistic to me. I do not recall that this experience had any positive effect on me. Conversely, I instead became more skilled at not getting caught.

10-Step Guide to Recidivism Reduction for Probation Departments, and More: a Roundup

  • juvenile-justice-reform_old-TVIs Our Racial Gap Becoming a Generation Gap?
    A provocative post from PolicyLink. Nearly half of the nation's young people are of color, but over 80 percent of America's seniors are white. "For the first time," the author argues, "America's seniors, business leaders, and elected officials simply do not see themselves in the faces of today's young. For many, this signals less obligation and commitment to the kinds of programs and resources that would help provide a boost for the next generation."
  • Addiction: What Gets Us Hooked?
    The title says it all. (H/t to Paul Savery.)
  • OJJDP Seeks Nominations for Awards at October Conference
    The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is seeking nominations for awards in four categories, to be given out at its fall conference, scheduled for October 12-14, 2011. UPDATE August 18: Deadline has been extended to August 29, 2011.

Could UK-Style Riots Happen in U.S. Cities Next?

juvenile-justice-system_fireman-do-not-cross-linejuvenile-justice-system_youth-watching-burning-buildingIt has been a bad week in the United States in a bad year marked by remarkable international turmoil. The recession and high unemployment persist at a time when the powerless seemed poised to fight back, creating a recipe for insurrection—as happened first  in the Middle East and now in Great Britain.
According to Wednesday’s (August 9) Washington Post editorial, “the common factors [sparking the riots] include high unemployment, resentment toward a prosperous and seemingly impenetrable upper class, and hatred of the police.”
All that sounds only too familiar, so should the United States expect riots here next? Are recent instances of mob violence in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Montgomery County Maryland  leading edges of a wave of violence here?

Juvenile Justice Youth Shortchanged by Overloaded Juvenile Defense Caseloads

juvenile-justice-reform_system-overload-coverFocusing on changing youth behavior is important. However, youth success also depends on what we as adults do, particularly when it comes to youth who come in contact with the justice system. The Justice Policy Institute’s new report, “System Overload,” shows how our shortchanging of public defender systems can have significant and lasting negative affects for both youth and adults who rely on them.
The right to effective counsel, regardless of ability to pay, is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This includes youth facing juvenile delinquency proceedings. However, a lack of financial resources for public defenders means that attorneys don’t have enough time for each case. Youth may not see their attorney until shortly before a hearing, or their public defender’s office might not have funding for investigators to look into the facts around the alleged offense. The following are some possible consequences of not having a robust public defender system:

Spotlight on Safety of Mental Health Workers (and More) -- News Roundup

  • Troubled Teenager's Path to Murder Charge
    The New York Times reports on endangered workers. Is the Massachusetts mental health system in a crisis that, among other problems, creates worrisome risks of violent tragedy?
  • The Legal Rights of LGBT Youth in State Custody 
    This article provides a guide for advocates representing LGBT youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. All youth in state custody, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are guaranteed rights to physical safety and prevention of psychological harm under the Constitution and state laws.  
  • New Parent Helpline Provides Support, Resources For Teen Substance Abuse 
    When parents find out their teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, the family’s immediate focus is generally on getting help for the teen. But parents are often in great need of help themselves. A new toll-free telephone helpline is providing that assistance.

Stopping the Revolving Door: Advances in Juvenile Justice in the National Drug Control Strategy

adolescent-substance-abuse-juvenile-justice_staircaseEliminating the revolving door of the criminal and juvenile justice systems is one of the Nation’s biggest challenges in reducing the devastating consequences of drug use. It deprives our youngest generations of their chance to lead healthy, safe and productive lives, and often fosters intergenerational violence. That’s why the Obama Administration is taking steps to prevent young people from becoming involved in drug use and crime, and providing intervention, treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and reentry support for those that do.
Last year, the Administration released its inaugural strategy for coordinating national drug control activities and reducing the effects of drug use and its consequences and stressed the need for effective substance abuse treatment for adolescents. The week before last, the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy built upon that foundation and expanded support for these efforts. Evidence-based, early interventions are critical tools to keep young people from cycling in and out of the juvenile justice system, or worse, entering and cycling through the adult system. Youth should not only be screened and treated for substance use problems, but also for unmet emotional, behavioral, or academic needs.

Making a Difference for Teens in Rowan County, NC (and More) -- News Roundup

  • Reclaiming Futures-Rowan County Makes a Difference for Teens
    In 2008, law enforcement agencies in the United States arrested more than 2 million people under the age of 18, according to the FBI. The best way to address youth crime, experts say, is to get to the heart of the problem — be it substance abuse, family issues or mental health problems. In the Salisbury Times, Shavonne Potts tells the story of Reclaiming Futures showing teens they care in Rowan County, North Carolina.
  • Texas’ Progress on Juvenile Justice
    A New York Times editorial celebrates a state juvenile justice system that is making impressive strides, when it was in chaos just a few years ago. How? Troubled children receive guidance and rehabilitation services in or near their communities, where they have support from families, churches and other local organizations. (Hat tip to Youth Transition Funders Group.)

"Beyond 'Scared Straight'" Returns to Promote a Discredited Juvenile Justice Intervention (Roundup)

juvenile-justice-system_scared-teenMuch to our dismay, A&E Network will air a second season of "Beyond 'Scared Straight,'" its hit reality-TV show, beginning August 18, 2011. As you may know, the program exposes a group of teens who've committed offenses to a group of adult prison inmates who scream, yell, and talk tough, in an effort to convince the kids to "going straight." 
There's a lot of problems with this approach, but the chief one is this: it doesn't work. There's not a single piece of independent research that indicates it's effective, and quite a lot that shows it isn't -- in fact, an overview of nine studies shows that youth who participate are more likely to commit crimes than kids who don't.  That may make for great television, but it's not good for the kids or our communities. 
We've given a lot of coverage in the past to why "Scared Straight" is a bad idea, so I'll just link to it here:

Photo: anna gutermuth under a Creative Commons license.

How Does Your Pay Compare to a Treatment Professional's? (and more) -- News Roundup

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Why School Discipline is the Key (VIDEO) and What to Do About It

How do you reduce the number of kids going into the juvenile justice system? Overhaul school disciplinary policies.
Here's a quick overview of research on the problem, a great video that puts a human face on the issue in Connecticut, and some things you can do.
juvenile-justice-system_breaking-schools'-rules-reportJust yesterday, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The report is based on a groundbreaking study of nearly 1 million secondary school students in Texas. (Researchers were able to control for over 80 different variables because they had individual-level records from schools and juvenile court for every single youth in the study.)
Though it's methodologically very careful in its conclusions, it does show that:

  • nearly 60 percent of all students in the study were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades;
  • African American students and children with "particular educational disabilities" were disproportionately affected -- especially for infractions where administrators had discretion over what sanctions to apply; and
  • students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system the following year.

But there's grounds for hope, because researchers also found that:

  • suspension and expulsion rates varied widely beween schools, even among schools that were similar in terms of their students' racial compositon or economic status.

This suggests that schools can handle behavior problems differently, and with fewer negative outcomes on the youth.
[More after the jump --]

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Chicago Youth Calling for a Dollars and Sense Policy

[The following post originally appeared July 14, 2011, on the Connected by 25 blog, published by the Youth Transition Funders Group. It's an unusual example of students advocating against harsh discipline policies that feed the juvenile justice system. - Ed.]
juvenile-justice-reform_VOYCE-Youth-leadersYoung people are gathering on the steps of Chicago Public Schools today, along with parents and teachers, calling for an overhaul of the district school discipline policy. The rally is organized around the release of a new report, Failed Policies, Broken Futures: The True Cost of Zero Tolerance, produced by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE)
VOYCE, a youth organizing collaborative, has approached school discipline through a cost-effectiveness analysis, using the $700 million budget shortfall as a very powerful hook. It's so powerful it has brought the Chicago Teacher Union to the table with CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaking at the rally. Too often teachers are in support of pushing students out of the classroom. Yet the national struggle to come to terms with diminished resources is changing the dynamics.

The report offers a compelling argument that that the current practices are not financially or educationally effective:

House of Representatives Proposes Deep Cuts for Juvenile Justice, and More: Roundup


Juvenile and Criminal Justice: The Calculus of Flogging

juvenile-justice-system_prison-alleyFlogging conjures up grotesque images. American slaves flogged by their overseer. Conscripted sailors flogged by their masters. Such an idea wouldn’t get any traction in a civilized society like ours, right? 
Maybe. John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Peter Moskos has floated a proposal to replace each year of prison with two lashes. His motives seem pure—he believes the American prison system is completely dysfunctional and that millions, maybe billions, could be saved with this simple change in punishment, with no effect on public safety.
Putting aside for a moment the moral baseness of the idea and that pesky Eight Amendment proscription against torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment (flogging has to be four-for-four on that one), let’s consider if it would even work.
There is a long and fascinating law and economics literature on the relative merits of severity versus certainty as ways to prevent crime. The idea is straightforward. The main aim of punishment is to set society's costs of incarcerating a criminal in prison equal to the benefits of keeping that person from running amuck on the streets. (Rehabilitation can also correct, but that is a separate issue).
Flogging, in this case, is just a different way of meting out a severe punishment that substitutes intensity for duration. The big question, then, is whether criminals will commit new crimes once back on the streets after being flogged --  new crimes that certainly would have been prevented by incarceration in an expensive prison cell.

Teens and Children Twice as Likely to Falsely Confess to Crimes When Questioned

juvenile-justice-system_teen-with-head-in-her-handsThe requirement that law enforcement must issue Miranda warnings to suspects in custody prior to interrogating them is well-understood and ingrained in our culture. The question of when a suspect is in custody, however, is less straightforward. 
On June 16, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, holding that law enforcement must consider a suspect’s age in the Miranda custody calculus. As was the reality in almost 20% of its cases this term, the court was split 5-4. The majority, led by Justice Sotomayor saw no reason to ignore the “commonsense reality” that children may feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult would not. Justice Alito’s dissent was guided by the principle that law enforcement needs the clarity of a bright line rule.  
The majority and dissent did agree on one important point: juveniles are significantly more likely than adults to succumb to the intense pressure of custodial interrogations by making involuntary and false confessions. 
Indeed, Justice Sotomayor noted “the heightened risk of false confessions from youth,” while Justice Alito would “not dispute that many suspects who are under 18 will be more susceptible to police pressure than the average adult.” For a court that so rarely agrees on anything, the recognition that custodial interrogation can cause juveniles to confess at an increased rate should not be overlooked.
Custodial interrogation is a systematic, intense process designed to persuade the accused that it would be in their best interest to confess. The process can be so powerful that, even when the police use these tactics on innocent suspects, it may result in a confession. Studies demonstrate that false confessions play a role in anywhere from 15-25% of wrongful convictions. When parsing the date more closely, it is revealed that false confessions are almost twice as likely when the wrongfully convicted was a teenager or child. 

School Superintendent to Governor: Please Make My School a Prison

juvenile-justice_Nathan-BootzNathan Bootz (shown at right), superintendent of Ithaca Public Schools in Michigan, has written a public letter to Governor Rick Snyder, requesting that his school be classified as a prison. 
Why? Check out his provocative letter (reprinted with his permission):

Dear Governor Snyder,
In these tough economic times, schools are hurting. And yes, everyone in Michigan is hurting right now financially, but why aren’t we protecting schools? Schools are the one place on Earth that people look to to “fix” what is wrong with society by educating our youth and preparing them to take on the issues that society has created.
One solution I believe we must do is take a look at our corrections system in Michigan. We rank nationally at the top in the number of people we incarcerate. We also spend the most money per prisoner annually than any other state in the union. Now, I like to be at the top of lists, but this is one ranking that I don’t believe Michigan wants to be on top of.
Consider the life of a Michigan prisoner. They get three square meals a day. Access to free health care. Internet. Cable television. Access to a library. A weight room. Computer lab. They can earn a degree. A roof over their heads. Clothing. Everything we just listed we DO NOT provide to our school children.
This is why I’m proposing to make my school a prison. The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student. I guess we need to treat our students like they are prisoners, with equal funding. Please give my students three meals a day. Please give my children access to free health care. Please provide my school district Internet access and computers. Please put books in my library. Please give my students a weight room so we can be big and strong. We provide all of these things to prisoners because they have constitutional rights. What about the rights of youth, our future?!
Please provide for my students in my school district the same way we provide for a prisoner. It’s the least we can do to prepare our students for the giving our schools the resources necessary to keep our students OUT of prison.
Respectfully submitted,
Nathan Bootz
Ithaca Public Schools

What I hope Governor Snyder will take away from this is not the false idea that prisoners have a soft life, or that the resources that go to them should be taken away and given to school children; instead, I hope he is able to find ways to act on the principle that providing adequate investments in education and prevention go a long way toward preventing delinquency and crime. 
(Hat tip:

Senate Passes Bill That Strips Confirmation Requirement for Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare Jobs

juvenile-justice-system_U.S.-Capitol-BuildingThe Senate passed by a 79-20 margin [on June 29] the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which would remove the Senate confirmation requirement for hundreds of executive branch positions, including two of the top federal jobs related to child welfare and juvenile justice.
S. 679 was never referred out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The bill was introduced in late March by a bipartisan group of senators and blessed with the support of both Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Chief among the youth-related positions affected by the bill are Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), an agency within the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice, and Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), which is part of the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Georgia’s Juvenile Judges Face Uncertain Situation as Compact Expires: "Nobody Knows What's Going to Happen"

juvenile-justice-system_bridge-to-nowhereBeginning July 1, Georgia’s juvenile court judges will face a new, unprecedented set of challenges.  That’s the first day Georgia will no longer operate under an agreement that allows for the transfer of delinquent juveniles and runaways between the states.
Georgia is the only state in the nation that has not already adopted or is not set to adopt the Interstate Compact for Juveniles (ICJ), an update of a previous compact established in 1955.  Currently, Georgia functions under the 1955 compact.  The Interstate Commission for Juveniles, the governing body of the ICJ, gave Georgia three extensions to pass legislation so the state could enter the new compact (in 2008, 2009 and 2010).  Since the Legislature failed to enact the needed legislation in 2011, Georgia will not be given any more extensions, officials at the compact say.
The compact provides a framework that allows the seamless transition of juveniles from one state to another.  Without the compact, Georgia’s juvenile judges are left “scratching their heads,” Judge Mary Carden, a juvenile judge in the state, said.  “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Does Your Youth Program Work? and More: a Roundup