An Opportunity to Remake Juvenile Justice

Judge TimberlakeIt is the legislative season in Illinois and around the country, and that means advocates spend lots of time trying to improve the juvenile justice system and trying to defeat bills that would hinder progress.

These debates in state capitols take place at the same time state agencies, probation departments and not-for-profit service providers struggle to operate their organizations and pay attention to the legislative action.

While keeping track of dozens of small but important debates, it is difficult to remember the big picture. Considering the enormity of effort required to re-write statutes, re-position staff and re-budget an entire state system, the consensus seems to be that it is easier to wire around deficiencies than to attempt to create a more rational structure. With the right guiding principles, the right people in leadership and advocates who are willing to create the right kind of accommodations, the system can function reasonably well.

But sometimes, it is important to step back and ask whether this complicated and costly juvenile justice “system” is really accomplishing what we want it to accomplish. If not, why not? Is the very structure of that system getting in the way? Is this the system we would build if we could start from scratch? Sometimes, it is important to ask these really fundamental questions for the benefit of the young people and communities who rely on the juvenile justice system.

My view of this exercise is colored by more than a law degree and years on the bench. I was fortunate to be educated in a joint JD/MBA program at the University of Illinois. I have never forgotten what some very good professors drilled into me. In particular, I learned about organizational behavior: the study of how people act in concert to achieve a desired result. The academic approach was to determine an organization’s structure and to examine its mission, guiding principles, policy and procedures. The daily results and practices of the enterprise depend upon how staff interact with all of these structural components and with each other.

The best juvenile justice organizations — whether state or local, public or private — begin with essential principles; fairness for victims and offenders, equity among clients, public safety, family inclusion, respect for the individual and many others. As a business enterprise, these organizations must also consider efficiency, achievement of results valued by society and positive cost-benefit ratios.

So, why expend brain time on this thought path? Because our juvenile justice systems may be facing an unprecedented opportunity for clean-sheet thinking, the time is right. Tight budgets, declining crime, adolescent brain science and burgeoning public understanding create a climate for re-structuring the results instead of altering the margins and wiring around problems. The “put good people in leadership” principle is a good approach, but new leadership faces structures that developed as past crises or political changes have whip-sawed its’ staffing and goals. Agency heads inherit union contracts, bricks and mortar and institutional culture are grown by accretion over time. And good people are promoted or are replaced by changing politics or changing board members.

A precipitating event may create an opportunity for structural change: a crisis inside an institution, a lawsuit or fiscal dilemma. In some states, the opportunity for change is imbedded in statute by sunset laws. In Illinois, the 1970 constitution — the first change in 100 years — allows for a constitutional review every 20 years as recognition that needs and goals change over time. No such review has taken place in the 44 years since: at least partially because the status quo is preferred by those who benefit from it.

If a precipitating event or a public appetite for change gives juvenile justice system organizations an opportunity, how should the clean sheet design be created, how should a new organization be formed?

Of course, the essential principles described above are keys to guide both structure and behavior. The mission of the organization must be designed to articulate the results sought by the people who pay the bill. Thereafter, decisions about policy and procedures must be thoughtfully created to fulfill the mission. Staffing, physical plant, contracting, performance review based upon adequate data and effective on-going evaluation and quality assurance must all be created and implemented.

The practices employed by the staff must be directed by evidence of effectiveness, and, perhaps most importantly, the day-to-day organizational behavior must be managed by well-trained and committed personnel who understand all of the above.

Re-visiting the principles that guide an organization’s structure and comparing the results achieved in furtherance of its mission is not time lost. Providing resources for management and support is not money wasted.

Sometime, to make real change — you just have to start over.


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