The Price of Service

feet of a veteran with his backpack and shoes and an american flag in the backgroundWith all eyes on the opioid epidemic, the suicide crisis has been allowed to quietly loom without much notice. In 1999, suicide rates began to trend upward among all age groups. Nearly twenty years later, this trend has not only persisted but has accelerated. Since 2006, the national suicide rate has increased rapidly, as much as doubling for some age groups, even while the other leading causes of death remained steady if not declined. As a result, suicide is now the second leading cause of death—what some might refer to as “preventable death”—among young people and adults 15 to 34, and the third leading cause of death among adults 35 to 44.

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Friday News Roundup: What Tuesday’s Elections Mean for Criminal Justice…

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: What this week’s elections mean for criminal justice, the largest single-day commutation in US history, the war on drugs isn’t over, and more. 

Drugs and Treatment Courts

Is the ‘War on Drugs’ Over? Arrest Statistics Say No

Despite the legalization of marijuana in many states and bipartisan calls to treat drug addiction as a public health issue rather than as a crime, arrests for drugs have increased every year since 2015, after declining over the previous decade. According to crime statistics released by the FBI in September, there were 1,654,282 arrests for drugs in 2018, continuing to disproportionately affect African-Americans and Hispanics. Drugs have been the top reason people have been arrested in the US for the past 10 years, if not longer, and marijuana is the top drug involved in those arrests. Over 80 percent are for possession, inching up when compared to arrests for sale or manufacturing. (Stellin, The New York Times, November 5, 2019)

Legislation in Senate Aims to Expand Veteran Treatment Courts

A bipartisan bill, called the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019, creates a program in coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help state, local, and tribal governments develop and maintain veteran treatment courts. The release says the bill would provide grants, training, and technical assistance for such courts and communities that are interested in starting such a program. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Martha McSally (R-AZ), John Cornyn (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the legislation after it passed in the House last week. (News Staff, CBS19, Washington, November 5, 2019)


Andy Beshear’s Win in Kentucky is Also a Win for Ex-Felon Voting Rights

New governor-elect Andy Beshear (D) is poised to sign an executive order that restores voting rights to at least some people with felony records after they’ve served their sentences, potentially increasing the voter rolls by more than 100,000. Kentucky has one of the strictest laws disenfranchising people with felony records, banning them from voting for life, unless they get a special reprieve from the state, even after they serve out their prison sentences, parole, or probation. It is only one of two states with such a strict lifetime ban. (Lopez, Vox, November 6, 2019)

‘A Sea Change’ for Prosecutors in Northern Virginia a Liberal Democratic Candidates Sweep Races

Candidates who labeled themselves progressives won races for top prosecutor in four Northern Virginia counties Tuesday, giving a nationwide movement for bold criminal justice reform a major foothold in Virginia for the first time. The candidates promised sweeping changes such as moving away from the death penalty, dropping prosecutions for marijuana possession, ending cash bail, and limiting cooperation with immigration authorities. The counties are Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, and Prince William. (Jouvenal, The Washington Post, November 5, 2019)

We Cannot Afford to Squander This Chance for Criminal Justice Reform

With two recent presidential forums focused exclusively on criminal justice reform and the candidates for president releasing detailed plans for justice reform, The Hill wrote an OpEd about why this unprecedented attention is so critical. (Rooks, The Hill, November 5, 2019)

Criminal Justice 

Illinois Department of Corrections Revises Book Ban Policy 

On Friday, the Illinois Department of Corrections adopted new rules on how books, magazines, and other publications entering the prison will be reviewed. The directive comes after months of public outcry following one Illinois prison’s removal of about 200 books, many of which dealt with issues of race. The department was sued last year after some prisons prohibited publications from the Human Rights Defense Center, which produces Prison Legal News, and mail from the Chicago chapter of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization that supports incarcerated LGBTQ people. Under the new rules, the department still has wide discretion in determining what it can ban. (Weill-Greenberg, The Appeal, November 4, 2019)

Oklahoma Approves Largest Single-Day Commutation in US History

On Monday afternoon, nearly 500 people serving low-level drug and nonviolent offenses were released in what Oklahoma lawmakers are calling the largest single-day commutation in both state and US history. This is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates. Read more for how this came about and what advocates say still needs to be done. (Bellware, The Washington Post, November 3, 2019)

Juvenile Justice

Arizona Prosecutor Commissions Report That Argues against Leniency for Teen Who Commit Crimes

Prosecutors in Maricopa County, Arizona, are using a controversial report to discredit research on the differences between teenage and adult brains. The report argues that some young people are capable of understanding their offenses, especially murder, and should be judged individually, in the same way as adults because teenagers are not “meaningfully different from adults” when it comes to judgment, reasoning, planning, impulse management, self-control, and other cognitive functions. The report is an attack on pivotal decisions by the Supreme Court that prohibited extreme sentences for children and teenagers. (Lerner, The Appeal, November 1, 2019)

Public Defense

Massachusetts’ Highest Court is Urged to Address a Crisis in Indigent Defense

Yesterday, the state Supreme Judicial Court for Massachusetts heard arguments on pay rates and workloads for defense counsel. In honor of these hearings, The Appeal recorded and discussed the important history of public defenders and assigned counsel in the state of Massachusetts. Read the spotlight here. (Gullapalli, The Appeal, November 7, 2019)

Honoring Unique Identities in JDTCs

diverse group of hands put togetherAt almost every decision point in the US justice system, disparities of gender, race, and ethnicity can be observed. Even in the juvenile justice system, which is meant to be rehabilitative, black youth are locked up at almost five times the rate of white youth for the same crimes. It is also estimated that as many as 39% of incarcerated girls may identify as LGBTQ. Upstream in the justice decision-making process, black youth are far more likely to be arrested and charged compared with white youth, and white youth are more likely to be offered diversion (an intervention or alternative to incarceration) programs. Sadly, Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts (JDTCs) are no different, a 2016 study found that minority youth are underrepresented in JDTCs, and even if they are offered the opportunity to participate, minority youth have a lower rate of graduating JDTCs than white youth.

Of all the interventions in juvenile justice, JDTCs, with their explicit dedication to individualized case planning, engaging the participant’s family and community, and individualization of programming and responses to behavior, should, in theory, be equipped to support all youth in their access to, and graduation from, their programs. But, despite the incredible potential in the JDTC model, and the deeply committed and caring staff who work in JDTCs nationally, something isn’t quite working for all the young people they serve.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would like to offer one suggestion. We must avoid falling into the trap of treating everyone equally, rather we must ensure we are treating everyone equitably. Equitable treatment means we must acknowledge differences in experience and culture and incorporate those differences into the case plans we develop for our young people.

Our nation has a history of mistreating and subjugating people based on race, gender, sexual identity, indigeneity, and a myriad of other identities, and people get understandably nervous when we start talking about acknowledging and giving the space for racial and gender differences. But in the context of a young person seeking recovery, this may not just mean recovering themselves, but also recovering and grounding themselves back in their identity within their community, ancestors, family, or tradition. As we recognize Global Diversity Awareness Month this October, with its explicit call to recognize and honor diversity and cultural differences, it seems timely to reflect on the services JDTCs provide, and how we can ensure cultural traditions and diverse racial experiences are honored in our programs.

Despite our commitment to honoring the individual experience, JDTCs may not offer therapy targeted at addressing generational trauma, or the historical impact of racism on people of color, despite research showing that these traumas manifest themselves in both physical and emotional ways. This is not to say that all black children experience, or internalize, racism in the same ways, but a holistic approach to recovery must include the opportunity to acknowledge, process, and begin healing from scars inflicted as a result of one’s race. Normal Cognitive Behavioral Therapies do not focus on this, but there are programs, such as the HEAT program, that do. HEAT was designed by black men, for black men, to help them rediscover themselves through spirituality, community, and family. This program goes beyond the idea that to engage in therapy it helps young black men to have someone who looks like them, and instead demands that the therapist and the curriculum help them process all their experiences, including those directly related to race, in order to begin to recover.

Not every JDTC can access the HEAT Program, but all JDTCs can think critically about the populations they have; or, based on demographics in their systems, the populations they should be targeting, and what needs or programming might aid the recovery of those populations. I was in a JDTC a while back that had an influx of refugees, and aside from the standard issues with finding translators and interpreters, the team had made very few adjustments to their program to help youth and families cope with the trauma of fleeing home, seeking asylum, or adjusting to life in the US. Skilled therapists would be able to help these young people process some of the trauma, but they should also consider what community or spiritual practices the family holds dear that would aid them in their healing process. JDTCs should consider how they might be a partner with the community to facilitate this healing (without being appropriative).

Given our history, and contemporary fears around racism and sexism, it is understandable that JDTC staff become nervous when discussing race or gender-based interventions for young people. However, it is important to understand that the way to help young people recover is to allow them to connect with all areas of their identity, and that requires us as staff to acknowledge them, honor them, and provide services based upon their unique needs, including needs related to race and/or gender.

By recognizing these different identities and experiences in our case plans, JDTCs may finally be able to live up to their true, individualized, potential.


Want to know more about addressing racial and ethnic disparities (RED) in your JDTC? Check out the NDCRC’s new RED Program Assessment Tool, or email to learn more about our RED focused TTA.

Mental Illness Awareness Week Brings Attention to the Need for Treatment Courts

Why Care? Mental Illness Awareness Week

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from October 6th through the 12th. This topic has not only started to get more attention in the last few months but remains a critical issue in need of effective solutions. For those incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system, assistance for mental illness is often overlooked and it’s even more true for individuals experiencing suicidal ideation.

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