Two Judges Paid to Send Juveniles to Detention - Lessons Learned

scales of justice blocked outChances are, you saw the news that two judges in Pennsylvania pleaded guilty last week to charges that for five years, they funnelled teens into detention in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks. This, after they'd worked to get the county-run detention center shut down in 2002. An estimated 5,000 juveniles who appeared in court were victimized this way; many for behavior that should never have landed them in court in the first place. A class-action lawsuit brought by the Juvenile Law Center is in the offing, and possibly -- hopefully -- charges against those running the private detention centers. 
This is appalling news. But it's also unusual. Juvenile court judges deserve the trust we place in them; they have a difficult job, trying to use the power of the court to help young people turn their lives around. 
What can more fortunate jurisdictions, then, learn from this story? I came away thinking about two things:

  1. Is privatizing juvenile justice a good idea? Where juvenile justice services are privatized, they had better be well-regulated by the state. And states need to fund adequate staff to oversee them, do site visits, interview the youth and families, and so on.
  2. The juvenile justice system fails teens every day. How can we help? Most people in the juvenile justice system are hard-working and well-intentioned. But we drop the ball. We don't make the extra effort to make sure the kid gets to that treatment appointment. We get mad because the kid we're supervising doesn't want to give up his friends and fly right. We get frustrated because our opposite number at that other agency -- probation, treatment, child welfare, etc. -- doesn't return our calls unless there's a crisis.

And we track our work with teens only through the lens of our own agency. For example, we refer them out for services ... but we don't have any way to track on an aggregate level whether kids are showing up there. 
What can we do? We can work together much better than we do. In places where the key players engage in a conscious change effort to improve the way the juvenile justice system works with teens, change happens.
For example, sharing data among key stakeholders on the number of youth detained and their instant offenses -- as happens in detention reform work -- could've revealed the kind of systemic abuses that happened in Pennsylvania.
How to improve the way individual cases are handled? Change efforts like Reclaiming Futures can help. By shining  a spotlight on the way juveniles who need alcohol and drug treatment move through the justice system, we start to increase the accountability of all the players, even individual caseworkers. Eventually, all services should end up in the spotlight.
What do you think? Are there other lessons to be learned?
UPDATE: One of the two judges charged pleaded guilty April 29, 2010.

Updated: February 08 2018