In the past several years, policies have been put in place to help improve the juvenile justice system. The most recent of these policies is “Raise the Age.” While this is an important move forward, these policies often fail to address the root causes and the pathways into the juvenile justice system.
At 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 email@example.com to learn more about our RED focused TTA.
September marks the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) 30th Recovery Month! In these past 30 years we have witnessed the expansion of evidence-based clinical drug treatment and a shift towards addressing substance use as a public health issue rather than an individual moral failing. With new evidence and approaches, policy makers, medical professionals, and social workers are combating a decades-rise of drug related deaths: due to the often cited opioid-crisis. But one group is often left out of the conversation: young people.
‘Hey Matt, what does the research say about [X]?’
I relish this question, because I love helping practitioners turn research data into something they can apply to their courts. It’s my favorite part of my job.
Almost seven years ago, New York Times columnist Allina Tugend wrote an insightful column on redefining success, quoting author Katrina Kenison: “There’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.” This National Drug Court Month, I wanted to congratulate all Juvenile Drug Treatment Court (JDTC) practitioners on your tireless work and encourage you to cultivate an appreciation of what you have accomplished; to think beyond the traditional measures of success, specifically the expectation we place on our participants to graduate.
Almost every time I travel to work with a JDTC, I end up telling this same story. It’s not even my own, it’s Dr. Jaqueline Van Wormer’s, but it’s a good one, so I’m going to share it with you:
On December 21, President Trump signed H.R.6964 – Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. This law reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) Reauthorization Act. First authorized in 1974, the act ensured certain minimum standards for the treatment of youth in the justice system, banning incarceration for status offenses (such as drinking, which is prohibited only based on the age of the accused) and adopting a requirement that youth incarcerated in adult facilities have sight and sound separation from adult inmates. Since 1974, reauthorizations of the law have included provisions that require states address racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system and incentives for states to use evidence-based interventions to reduce juvenile delinquent activity.
However, despite seeming longstanding federal commitment to the idea that all young people deserve a second chance, the JJDPA had languished, pending reauthorization, for more than ten years. So, when Trump signed the reauthorization act on the coattails of the much anticipated Second Chance Act, juvenile justice practitioners everywhere (myself included) were relieved and elated.
The truth of the common quip “all politics is local” has seemingly eroded in the last several years. The modern method of consuming news means our collective attention is squarely aimed at the actors we can all recognize or the systems which we are all familiar. We are less informed and less engaged in the issues in our own community. But whether or not the public is engaged, the American political system hinges on decentralized power spread over millions of jurisdictions. This is especially true of the criminal justice system. Despite what is taught in high school civics classes, the justice system is not a single body or multiple bodies under a clear hagiarchy. Police, prisons, jails, public defenders, prosecutors, the judiciary, and the various ancillary services all operate independently with virtually no meaningful oversight or coordinated direction from a higher body. Each, however, can affect what justice looks likes in a community. Continue reading “The role of local institutions in the criminal justice reform debate”
How do you know whether the young person in front of you in court is likely to commit another crime? Historically the American justice system has looked at somewhat subjective factors like, “what crime did you commit?” or “have I seen you in court before?” In the past twenty years, the justice system has attempted to standardize the assessment of an individual’s likelihood of recidivism, reduce subjectivity, and target intentions at those who need them most. Continue reading “Validate Me!! In Defense of [Properly Utilized] Risk Assessments”
“The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” – Unknown
As I walked into my first (and only!) law class in grad school, there was a quote written on the whiteboard. Our professor looked at us and asked, “How does this apply to our case today?” The case in question was “In re Gault,” the landmark US Supreme Court case which established the right to counsel for juveniles in delinquency cases in 1967. That may have been my only law class, but I continue to grapple with the issues raised by this case through my work training and providing technical assistance to juvenile drug treatment courts. In the 51 years since Gault, we’ve come a long way to ensure justice for youth, but there are still steps we need to take, especially when it comes to the right to counsel.
The goal of juvenile justice interventions is to motivate adolescent behavior change—not an easy task, as any parent can attest. Teen behavior can be baffling; adolescents are impulsive, they love to take risks, their peers are essential to their self-image, and their emotions play a key role in their decision-making process. But there are strategies that have been proven to help adolescents, even the most at-risk youth, to live healthy lives.