Weekly Notes: Day 960; attempts to expand on Graham v Florida; and more

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***Day 960 of the Obama administration and still no nominee to serve as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Peyton Manning won’t be starting for the Colts on Sunday, so this is now the most notable public streak going.

The only current known candidate for the OJJDP job, Massachusetts Department of Youth Services Commissioner Jane Tewksbury, had a tough week that may bring an aspect of her department’s reentry process under fire. Ricardo Arias, a 17-year-old who had been released from a DYS facility on a one-day pass to see a Boston Red Sox game, allegedly left the game early and later fatally shot a teenager from a rival neighborhood.

Speaking with Maria Cramer of the Boston Globe this week, Tewksbury explained that DYS often gives either supervised or unsupervised passes to juveniles who are aging out of the juvenile justice system. It is a process that eases the juveniles back into society instead of starkly releasing them one day when they turn 18.

The concept will likely need to be defended now before state legislators and policy makers.  In hindsight, it’s easy to say, “Ricardo Arias should never have been released on a pass, look what he did with the opportunity.” But in the real world, decisions on passes can only be based on available information: the offense the person committed to get to DYS – which in Arias’ case was gun possession – and his behavior and progress in the facility.

Arias’ alleged actions are tragic; he is also the only juvenile ever to be arrested for a violent offense while out on a pass, DYS Deputy Commissioner Ed Dolan told the Globe.

A review of the state’s pass policy can focus either on the decision to give Arias a pass or the practice of giving any passes. The first would examine Arias’ experience at DYS to determine if any staff member knew or should have known that giving him a pass was a bad idea, and then take steps in an effort to correct the process. The second would be to determine if the practice of allowing passes is a risk DYS should continue, balancing that fact that most offenders do nothing wrong while they are out in the community against the severe (alleged) actions of one juvenile.  

***President Obama made a pitch of his American Jobs Act legislation last night, and information about the implications for family and youth services is here at Youthtoday.org.

The president did not single out many demographics in the speech, with the exceptions of teens (funding for summer jobs programs to employ “hundreds of thousands” of youths) and veterans (financial incentives for employers who hire them). There was no mention of ex-offenders, who have significant barriers to entering the workforce and pose a risk to public safety when they are unable to find employment. There was also no mention of the Workforce Investment Act, the main federal driver of job training and placement for juvenile and adult offenders, which is eight years overdue for reauthorization.

One idea that some juvenile justice advocates hope will get attention through one of several pieces of legislation – the Jobs Act, WIA reauthorization, or a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – is guiding more high-school dropouts toward professional training rather than more formal education.

David Sortino, a former teacher and juvenile justice worker who is now a columnist for the Santa Rosa, Calif. newspaper the Press Democrat, proposed in a column last week that juvenile offenders needed more vocational education opportunities that set them on a path to a trade such as plumbing or electrical work.

In Massachusetts, Department of Youth Services leaders want the U.S. Education Department to allow juvenile justice systems to use federal education dollars for vocational training.

“Statistically, the 17-year-old freshman may go back and finish [high] school, but he needs to have success in other areas first,” Christine Kenney, director of educational services for the Massachusetts DYS, told Youth Today in April for an article about how the Department of Education could improve educational opportunities for juveniles. “So we want to get them on a vocational path.”

Sortino told JJ Today that he believes targeting youths early on for job-focused education is better than waiting until they are involved with the juvenile justice system.

“We should begin vocational assessments as early as seventh grade to plant the seeds that give the students a vision, and then move those interested students to a vocational [high] school in ninth grade,” Sortino said. “Why wait until they break the law or drop out? We have schools … that cater to the arts, why can't we have a vocational segment that caters to kids who are interested in hands-on vocations like becoming an electrician or a plumber?”

What Sortino describes has greater potential in reducing drop-out rates than merely  guiding drop-outs and youths who have been arrested toward vocational training. It also runs counter to the belief by many that middle school and high school should prepare students to do whatever they want, not narrow their options to a profession they expressed interest in at a young age. This was part of the clash between Democrats and Republicans during the Clinton-era Youth Opportunities Grants, which funded school-based services such as career awareness and counseling and work-based programs such job shadowing and skills training in various industries.

The summer jobs program funding will doubtless be well-received by youth advocates. We know of no research that directly connects higher summer job activity with lower juvenile arrests, but logic suggests that youth who are occupied with a summer job and have some money in their pockets are less inclined to commit drug-related crimes, thefts or burglaries.

If Obama’s Jobs Act passes, it will be interesting to see how the summer jobs money is routed: Will nonprofit intermediaries oversee the programs, or will city agencies?

***This week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled against an Alabama man who was asking the judges to expand on the Supreme Court’s Graham v Florida decision last year that banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of any crime other than homicide.  The appeal by Kenneth Loggins, who is serving life without parole for a homicide he committed at age 17, was harshly rejected by the three-judge panel.

“The long-term national trend is not away from life without parole sentences for homicides committed by juveniles but toward them,” Judge Ed Carnes wrote in the decision.

Since the 2010 ruling in Graham, attempts at the state and regional level to expand on the ruling have fallen flat. Add this recent ruling to the decisions covered in a New York University study last spring, which identified 10 courts that have decided not to apply Graham to cases involving killings and seven courts have said the same thing about defendants who were accomplices to homicides (go to footnotes 85 and 86 on page 17 of the study for a list of the actual cases those courts ruled on).

Last month, the California Senate narrowly killed a bill that would have guaranteed a chance of parole or reduced sentences for juveniles convicted of a homicide. The author of SB 9, Sen. Leland Yee (D), managed to get it back up for reconsideration and it will actually be voted on today at some point. The reconsidered bill precludes inmates who tortured their victims or killed public safety officials from being eligible to apply for a shorter sentence.