Back in the early 1990s, it was fashionable in political and criminal justice circles to claim to be “tough on crime” and to bolster the claim by labeling teenage offenders as “superpredators” and calling for kids to be prosecuted as adults. The Annie E. Casey Foundation bucked that trend by launching the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), insisting that putting children behind bars did not improve their behavior and did not make the public safer.
Nearly three decades later, JDAI’s reforms have been adopted in more than 300 counties across 40 states. Detention admissions are down more than half and crime rates continue to decline. The organization’s successes have enabled it to shift its main focus away from juvenile detention reform to the overhaul of probation.
The group is also determined to eliminate the overrepresentation of youth of color in the system and to increase diversion alternatives to incarceration.
Nate Balis, director of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said the evidence of harm done to youth by detention makes it clear that “the onus is now on us to justify why any young person should be locked up.”
He noted that more than 60 percent of adjudicated youth receive probation – even those with first-offense misdemeanors. The problem with probation: “it is actually harmful for youth at low risk for rearrest.”
Balis said Casey is working to shift from the traditional probation model to one that encourages positive youth development with incentives.
Three years ago, Pierce County, Wash. was one of two jurisdictions to receive a Casey probation transformation grant. A program called Opportunity-Based Probation gives youths opportunities to win gift cards, participate in internships and even end their probation early.
The county’s Juvenile Court administrator said the program “changes the whole way we engage families and view court and court orders.” He added that the effort is “having great success with youth of color.”
Of course, there is still a long way to go to ensure fairness across the system and to help youth improve their lives and enhance their prospects of productive futures.