Not long ago, misbehaving youth in New Jersey’s juvenile corrections facilities could be sent off to isolation for up to 30 days. Then a new government system came along to gather and disseminate data among juvenile justice agencies – and New Jersey officials were slapped in the face with the fact that they isolated kids far more than other states did.
“It was shocking – we were completely off the screen,” recalls Howard Beyer, executive director of the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission. “It hit me like a lead balloon that we were using an adult discipline system” that was not working well.
“We had to change the way we did business,” he says. The state moved to a less punitive system, reducing the average time in isolation by more than 80 percent and reducing the number of youth and staff injuries.
Impacts like that are among the reasons that this summer, the Performance-based Standards program (PbS) was one of five winners of the Innovations in American Government Award. The $100,000 awards are given by the Council for Excellence in Government, based in Washington, and the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.
The PbS project was inspired by the 1994 “Conditions of Confinement” study funded by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which found overcrowded and substandard conditions in many youth institutions. That same year, officials from around the nation formed the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, based in Braintree, Mass., and set about developing outcome measurements that could document the performance of their institutions.
The result was a system of 101 outcome measurements covering six basic subject categories, says Ned Loughran, the council’s executive director and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. The goal, Loughran says, was to “measure every aspect of life for a kid in confinement.”
The initial six categories were safety, education, health/mental health services, security, justice and order. The council recently added a seventh area, inmate reintegration into the community.
In 1995, eighteen facilities began testing the system, using a Justice Department grant that has totaled about $1 million each year since. Rather than impose uniform national rules from Washington, the project focused on getting each state to compare the performance of its institutions with those in other states.
That idea quickly produced results in New Jersey, which in 1995 shifted control of its youth facilities from the corrections department to a Juvenile Justice Commission, which reports to the state attorney general. Then, after the Performance-based Standards data showed that most states isolated kids for far less time than New Jersey did, the state moved from a “discipline focus” to concentrating on the “positive things kids were doing,” Beyer says.
In an 18-month period between 2002 and this year, the average time youths spent in isolation in New Jersey fell from 11.25 days to less than 48 hours. After an incentive system was created for youth, the number of fights declined sharply, and Beyer’s office virtually stopped getting reports that staff members and inmates were being hospitalized.
Another PbS success story occurred at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center in Mandan, which officials vowed to improve after data showed that as of April 2003, only 3 percent of confined youth were receiving psychosocial skill assessments. Within a year, all youth were being assessed, and 60 percent were finishing a 10-week curriculum aimed at changing their behavior and preparing them to return home.
North Dakota officials cited a 16-year-old named Scott who arrived at Mandan with a long record of drug addiction and lawbreaking. In the new program, he earned nine high school credits, finished drug and alcohol treatment and progressed to the highest level on a behavior management scale. Released after 11 months, he has been living at home drug-free, and he graduated from high school this spring with honors.
Because data from individual institutions are not publicly released, the PbS system lets states evaluate their performance and make improvements without being publicly embarrassed, says OJJDP Administrator James Flores. “States that have problems routinely are desperately looking for ways to improve,” he says.
Now, 122 facilities in 26 states and Washington, D.C., voluntarily report their data to PbS. What started with surveys on paper has evolved into a Web-based system that collects data every six months. The system covers only about 12,000 of the 100,000 youth in custody nationwide, but more states are seeing its usefulness. OJJDP expects Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington state to join in the near future.
Federal funding continues, but OJJDP and the juvenile administrators group are preparing to require payments from states to participate. Loughran expects charges of up to $5,000 per facility. He notes that the system helps reduce potential litigation costs by reducing injuries, and says, “Kids who are not successfully rehabilitated cost states a lot of money. … This is a small investment to improve what they are doing.”