Report Cards Catching On?


Just as youths in Utah finished their first month of classes this fall, the state's juvenile justice system was getting its first grades for 2007. The juvenile court released its first ever report card to the community in late September, a way for states to give, at the very least, a whiff of transparency to taxpayers.

The notion of a system report card was planted in 2003, when the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquent Prevention (OJJDP) gave about $250,000 to the American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI) to help four systems develop report cards: Deschutes County (Bend), Ore., which started the first report card and sparked the whole project; Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa.; Cook County (Chicago), Ill.; and the State of South Carolina. The cards vary in what they include, but all show how much restitution has been paid to victims and how much of the community service ordered by courts has been fulfilled.

"Report cards inform communities on how well their juvenile justice systems are working," JJ coverage guru H. Ted Rubin wrote in a "Future Trends" report in 2006. "More and more courts will be developing and publishing these accountability measures in the future."

Are we on the precipice of a boom in courts that are more transparent to taxpayers? Hard to say.

APRI trained 19 other sites on the practice, according to Rubin, and he noted in his 2006 report that Kenosha, Wis., and Belknap County, N.H., had started report cards. He will have a story on restitution in an upcoming issue of Juvenile Justice Update, he said in a phone call with JJ Today. But he hasn't exactly tracked the proliferation of report cards with zeal. So we checked around.

Of the four APRI projects, Deschutes County and South Carolina have consistently pumped out a report card every year. Allegheny has been less religious in its commitment to them: the website shows none for 2005, and no report cards since 2006. Rubin mentions Cook County report cards in his 2006 article; we can't find one on any website. And since the whole point is to make the system's progress known to the community, we're counting the Cook County report card project as "defunct" unless told otherwise.

In South Carolina, advocates see the card as tangible evidence of better leadership in the state, whose system spent a decade under the constraints of a federal lawsuit.

"It's helpful to be able to, at a quick glance, get a lot of information," says Sue Oliver, CEO of Voices for South Carolina's Children and a member of the board of Friends of Juvenile Justice, a group that helps raise funds for JJ programs and focus attention on JJ issues in the state. "We're able to refer back to them and note the changes they've made."

Oliver is an outspoken fan of Department of Juvenile Justice Director (and former juvenile judge) Bill Byars, who initiated the report card project when he took over DJJ in 2003.

South Carolina's cards appear to be a good example of how to do this. It starts with a simple explanation and chart of how the system works, and then gives basic explanations for each statistic in the report. It isn't a good-news-only document, either; the report on 2007 stats document a serious problem with overpopulation at the state's detention centers, and Byars notes it in his opening comments.

Saint Louis, Mo., used a similar format to South Carolina for its first card, produced this year. It includes lots of system measurements and also documents community involvement in the system.

"We had always had a community report, but it was very dense; too much information," says Kathryn Herman, the juvenile court officer for the 22nd Judicial in Saint Louis. "We had wanted to try and give the community some idea of what we were accomplishing, and to measure ourselves."

Herman got a copy of APRI's paper about the report card project at a state conference, and found that two Missouri courts had already begun to develop their own. The cost of creating the report card was "minor," Herman says. The court had recently reallocated some funds to hire a research staff member, and the report card became part of that job description.

In contrast, Cumberland County, Penn., uses its card only to document restitution and community service.

Utah, which paid for the report card process with an OJJDP grant to the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice, appears to be the second state to produce a report card since South Carolina (Alaska produced two-page report cards for 2007 and 2008). It's is definitely the most aesthetically pleasing, accompanied by color photos of youths and pie-charted data. It isn't quite as introspective as South Carolina's, which breaks down secure commitments versus non-secure and the five specific charges that land most youth in court each year; stuff not every taxpayer is dying to know.

But the simplicity of Utah's report may mean it reaches more people. Utah Juvenile Court Administrator Ray Wahl, who first got the idea to produce a report card when he saw it recommended here by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, says he opted to break down the data by judicial districts, and those district reports (distribute to JJ-involved parties) include information similar to that published by South Carolina.

Any systems near you doing a good job getting progress reports out to the community? Let us know, and we'll update this report.