Learning from Massachusetts’ Juvenile Justice Experiment

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In 1971, Massachusetts juvenile justice boss Jerry Miller and his lead staffer, Tom Jeffers, sat down in a Boston pub and decided to blow up the way Massachusetts had handled juvenile justice for more than a century, starting with the Lyman School for Boys.  

The two went into Massachusetts to fix a system that had been beset by abuse at its training schools. Over drinks on Beacon Street, the two men decided that the state’s large facilities were not an ailment to be cured; they were a gangrenous arm in need of amputation.

“And so began perhaps the most audacious experiment in juvenile justice history,” said Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, commencing “The Massachusetts Experiment,” an invitation-only symposium hosted in Washington by Harrisburg, Pa.-based Youth Advocates Program (YAP) and funded by Casey to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Miller’s rapid closure of Massachusetts training schools.

Two important things happened after Massachusetts shut down its training schools:

1: Massachusetts became the first state to rely on community-based providers to help serve juveniles. “The thing that was revolutionary about Massachusetts was that it’s the first full-scale, commitment to purchase services as a methodology,” said one member of the audience, who did not identify himself. “Everyone does that for everything now.”

2: There was no juvenile crime spree. As the state moved most of its juveniles into community options or residential programs, “half the kids were absolutely crime free," said Barry Krisberg, who led research on the effect of the shutdown and spoke about it at the symposium. “For the rest of youth, offending had dropped in half, with serious crimes dropping even further.”

Those two factors immediately made Massachusetts a model for similar reforms in Utah and Missouri. Soon, said Krisberg, most states had closed at least one large juvenile facility, a trend that swung the other way after the premonitions about juvenile super-predators in the 1990s. 

YAP President Jeff Fleischer conceived of the event to honor Miller, who went on to serve as commissioner of children and youth services for Pennsylvania and then found the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. But the symposium also marked a starting point for a new push for juvenile de-incarceration.

YAP has grown from a small Pennsylvania operation into one that provides an alternative to incarceration in 19 states. Fleischer recently established a federal advocacy presence for the organization, moving a leader in YAP’s Chicago office, Shaena Fazal, to Washington.

Casey’s juvenile justice interests have focused for 20 years on lowering the number of youths who are detained before facing a juvenile judge. The foundation plans to turn its attention toward post-adjudication incarceration, with a goal of reducing the number of incarcerated juveniles by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

After a morning session at which Miller and some of his partners in Massachusetts reflected on the past, the discussion turned to how Massachusetts and other de-incarceration victories could inform new efforts to bring down large juvenile prisons.

Following are some of the major themes discussed at the symposium.

A rising tide on de-incarceration raises all boats when it comes to reform.

“Some people, even some in this room, resist the idea that the main impetus of juvenile justice reform is reduction of incarceration,” Lubow said at the outset of the symposium. He posited a few reasons why he believes de-incarceration is, in fact, the spear tip of reform:

-As the system currently operates as a ”safety net for everyone who works in the system” when juveniles fail drug tests or violate probation or parole in some minor way.

“It makes you wonder,” mused Lubow, “what would happen if that net were to be removed?”

-Without large juvenile prisons to fall back on, the public and government are forced to pay attention to education, assisting families, and addressing community health needs.

-It’s where the money is.

“All those who prefer to focus on preventing delinquency, diversion, after-care, let me remind you … those aspirations will never be achieved when 90 percent of the money is spent on the 5 percent [of juveniles] held in these cages.”

Federal block grants made Massachusetts happen.

Donna Jeffers, who worked for Miller at DYS and is now a managing trustee at Edgewood Trust, said Gov. Frank Sargent (R) had earmarked “a boatload” of the state’s federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration block grant for juvenile justice reform.

“We had a substantial block of LEAA money,” said Joe Leavey, who succeeded Miller as DYS commissioner and now serves as president of Communities for People. “That was crucial in allowing us to do things the legislature would never have let us do.”

Reform through appropriations.

-Jake Horowitz, who specializes in adult de-incarceration strategies for Pew Charitable Trusts, said something that has worked in adult justice is to “find a major building project, and offer a non-incarceration strategy that will cost a fraction of it.” In other words: Effect reform by altering a fiscal appropriation.

A $184 million plan to build two new prisons in Arkansas was replaced with a $10 million plan for community programs, he said. Another state he declined to name swapped $900 million for new prison building with $241 million for community programs.

A movement is currently afoot in Maryland to replace plans for a $100 million youth jail.

The goal should be simple, but getting there shouldn’t be easy.

“We never debated what we were going to and we all believed in what we were doing,” said Jeffers. “We did debate fiercely, continuously, about how to get there.”

Job protection at the top can’t be a factor.

Vinny Schiraldi, a Miller disciple and current head of probation for New York City, sought Miller’s advice when he was tapped to lead reform of the Washington, D.C. juvenile justice system. He was D.C.’s 20th juvenile justice leader in 19 years, and the average tenure of state juvenile justice directors at the time was 2.9 years.

“He told me, ‘Spend [the years] like you want to spend them; you’re gonna be gone soon anyway, we just rent these seats,’” Schiraldi said.

Do what you can to lose bad actors.

“Get the right people on the bus with you,” advised Tim Decker, director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, which has emerged as the model for how to handle secure care without relying on big training schools. “But keep the back door open and kick the wrong people out.”

It was a quick and clever turn of phrase that drew laughter, but it references perhaps the biggest single challenge to turning juvenile justice systems on their head: Letting go of staff who refuse to adapt to a new approach to corrections, or laying off workers when facilities are shut down.

Mental Health is an obstacle.

Gladys Carrión, who has closed 18 juvenile facilities during her tenure as commissioner of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, said 60 percent of OCFS wards carry a mental health diagnosis; 85 percent of girls in the system have a diagnosis.

“Juvenile justice facilities have become the “default mental health system for New York” youth, she said during a lunchtime speech at the symposium.

About 38 percent of the kids that come to DYS facilities in Missouri have a mental health diagnosis, Decker said, and he believes that half of those were made so they could get treatment.

“The over-incarceration of black and Latino youth could be our next new Jim Crow,” said Schiraldi. “A close second is the over-diagnosis of kids.”

Don’t ignore serious offenders; the public and media certainly won’t.

When the symposium broke up into working groups in the afternoon, one group focused on how serious and violent juvenile offenders fit into plans for a system that relied less on bricks and mortar. Advocates sometimes intentionally don’t focus on these offenders, which is silly because these are youths that mainstream media and the public are most aware of.

The working group’s recommendation:

-Include victims and communities as part of the problem-solving dialogue on violent crime.

-Outline ways in which juvenile justice systems have effectively dealt with kids who commit murder.

-Make efforts to legally differentiate between the kids who are on trial in connection with serious violence and those who are accused/convicted of actually doing it. This could come up when the U.S. Supreme Court again takes on the issue of juvenile life without parole in 2012.

Build a political constituency that can rival prison interests.

Marc Schindler worked for years litigating troubled systems and joined Schiraldi when he agreed to oversee reform of DYRS in Washington, ultimately succeeding him for a time. The plan in Washington included closure of a notorious juvenile prison, the opening of a more rehabilitative facility, and establishment of a community-based services network lead by two nonprofit lead entities.

Both Schiraldi and Schindler took heat from the union representing workers at the DYRS secure facility, New Beginnings, but Schindler said that was mitigated somewhat by support from the agency’s community partners.

“They are a political constituency that guards against reverting back to the old way,” Schindler said.

The same thing could be said of state fiscal hawks that loathe the costs involved in high levels of incarceration. “I don’t care what their motivation is,” said Jeffers. “There is no groundswell of caring right now.”

Another potential political asset in juvenile justice reform: governor’s wives. Miller and his former leadership in Massachusetts all agreed that the late Jessie Sargent was a major influence on her husband when it came to juvenile justice reform. Miller recalled visiting a facility he wanted to close with her, and waiting for hours after the tour while she met with all of the wards.

Jeffers said Ginny Thornburgh was a force in the administration of her husband, Dick, who served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987. Juvenile justice advocates give similar credit to Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal (wife of Gov. Nathan Deal), who serves as chair of the advisory board for the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

All three of those first ladies were or are spouses of Republican governors.