Weekly Notes: Defending Childhood Projects Commence; Scared Straight Under Fire; Juvenile Justice Information Exchange; and more

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***Meetings on the Defending Childhood initiative took place this week among senior Justice officials and the eight sites selected to conduct demonstration programs: Boston, Portland, Me., Grand Forks, N.D., Cleveland, Multnomah County, Ore. (Portland), Shelby County, Tenn. (Memphis), the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

The initiative is one of the two juvenile-related projects set in motion by Attorney General Eric Holder (the other is the department’s work on indigent defense). Defending Childhood carries the mission of “preventing children’s exposure to violence” and mitigating “the negative impact of children’s exposure…when it does occur.”

The latter mission seems much more practical in relation to a focused, demonstration project. The research is mounting that indicates the extent to which stress from victimization can lead to juveniles becoming victimizers themselves. And the results of  W.T. Grant Foundation-funded research on the interplay of  violence, sleep and health have in youth  are expected in the near future. [Click here and see fifth item for details on that study by James Spilsbury and Denise Babineau].

“Preventing children’s exposure to violence.” however? It sounds like a rhetorical way of saying, “stopping crime.” Children are exposed to violence mostly because it occurs around them either on the street or in the home, and its existence is largely the reason we have law enforcement. That’s a pretty tall order for a demonstration project with $160,000 in federal funding, no?

***Four weeks ago, we reported on the “Beyond Scared Straight” series that A&E was about to premiere. The show, which features the efforts of three states (California, Missouri and South Carolina) to deter youths from criminal lifestyles by having them visit adult prisons. The television show has drawn huge ratings; the strategy itself is dubious, though, because research indicates such programs do not lower the likelihood of future offending by participants.

As Youth Today published that first piece, critics of the “scared straight” approach were just starting to galvanize opposition to the show. Since then, quite a bit has happened:

* The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a statement in late January saying it joined the Coalition on Juvenile Justice in calling for A&E to present its viewers with the facts on the larger track record of “scared straight.” The television show “misrepresents the effectiveness of such interventions with youthful offenders,” the council said.

* Acting Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Laurie O. Robinson had an opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun that criticized "scared straight" programs.

“The network portrays such programs as effective in keeping youths from becoming lifelong criminals,” the column said. “Unfortunately, the research tells us otherwise: ‘scared straight’ is not only ineffective but is potentially harmful. And it may run counter to the law.” [Click here and go to the third bullet (***) to read about the “counter to the law” aspect].

* The state of Maryland announced yesterday that it temporarily was suspending its “scared straight” program, called Prisoners Against Teen Tragedies, while officials reexamine it.

UPDATE: California has also suspended its "scared straight" program, pending a review as to whether it complies with federal law, reports David Dishneau of the Associated Press.

* An article on North Jersey.com revealed that a teen involved in the first “Scared Straight!” documentary in 1978 pleaded guilty in April to a homicide that occurred in 1982. Angelo Speziale had told producers for a 1998 follow-up series that the program had turned his life around. Read Kibret Markos’ article on North Jersey.com.

Ryan Schill of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) suggests in the article that Speziale could become the poster child for “scared straight” critics, some of whom have called on A&E to pull the show.  

***Speaking of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: If we haven’t mentioned it before, kudos to the Center for Sustainable Journalism, housed at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, for starting the project. The content is Georgia-centric, for obvious reasons, but JJIE is already putting out good discussion pieces on national juvenile justice issues. Very happy to have some journalism colleagues focused on juvenile justice.

***Add South Carolina to the list of states that may merge juvenile justice with another agency: Nikki Haley (R) is proposing to fold the state’s juvenile justice operations into adult corrections. That would draw a lot of fire in most states, but there’s a wrinkle in South Carolina. There is a lot of respect for the former juvenile justice director, Bill Byars, and he is Haley’s new corrections boss. So the fear that juvenile justice will get lost in the shuffle within a larger adult corrections budget is lessened…under Byars. What happens after he leaves? Who knows.

***Interesting reads:

-The Justice Policy Institute published a white paper that focuses on victims and justice reform. "Moving Toward a Public Safety Paradigm: A Roundtable Discussion on Victims and Criminal Justice Reform" is the result of a day-long event held last fall that brought together advocates and academics to discuss how better to include all those affected by the criminal justice system to work for fair and effective policies.

-Thomas Stewart of the Ft. Myers News-Press reported today on a judge who sentenced three students to home detention and one to juvenile detention over threats to a person’s life made over Facebook. A group of students made overtures about killing a fellow student who they mistakenly thought had notified school officials about a person who brought a gun to the school.

This is an emerging issue that deserves discussion in juvenile justice: the so-far action-less words of youths on social networking sites. There is tremendous value in knowing about such talk and intervening. There are also plenty of times that obnoxious behavior online will never go further. The Luzerne County juvenile court scandal was uncovered, in part, because a student made a Myspace page mocking a school official, and she ended up being committed for it.

So an intelligent discussion about when and which criminal sanctions are warranted would be nice.

-New York blogger Nick Reisman said in a posting today that state Democrats are rallying around Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s JJ reform plans. Some Republican lawmakers were concerned, Reisman said, because they “would not want…facilities to close, losing the jobs that come with them.” 

Would some smart New York reader explain this to us: how isn’t this the perfect time for the state to discuss raising its age of jurisdiction? New York has facilities on the verge of closing, and the lowest age of jurisdiction in the nation (everyone over 15 is considered an adult for criminal proceedings).

***On June 7–9, 2011, in Las Vegas, Global Youth Justice and the National African American Drug Policy Coalition will hold the first Global Youth Justice Training in 2011, "Establish or Enhance a Youth Court/Teen Court."