Since much of my research as a MASCLab member centers on understanding how media representations of crime impacts juvenile justice policy, I attended the National Conference of Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) in NYC recently and learned that many judges are shifting their focus from behind the bench to beyond the courtroom, taking a leadership role in youth case management. NCJJ is a four day, tech-savvy symposium organized annually by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), an 80-year-old juvenile justice think tank based in Reno, NV. The conference is a forum to disseminate best practices in interpreting, applying and measuring new research and strategies designed to promote and ensure the best interests of youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system.
Recognizing the potentially life-long and multiple impacts of their decisions, judges and other juvenile justice decision-makers emphasized supporting youth well-being by keeping system-involved youth in a stable home (as opposed to detention or prison), supporting caregivers, and requiring documentation that health care needs are met and satisfactory educational progress is being made.
Conference sessions covered topics such as trauma-informed justice, new research on LGBTQ youth, ending solitary confinement for youth adjudicated as offenders and, among many more, reviewing school-justice partnerships, like NCJFCJ’s School Pathways to the Juvenile Justice System (School Pathways Project or SPP). NCJFCJ developed SPP about 4 years ago in response to Georgia Judge Steven Teske’s crusade against the flow of non-violent, “non-scary” juveniles being referred to his court in increasing numbers. In 2012 Judge Teske testified before a Senate subcommittee on “Ending the School to Prison Pipeline.” His data indicated a 2000% increase (not a typo) in the numbers of youth referred to his court between 1995 and 2004. In 1995, 49 youth came before his court. In 1996 school districts in his jurisdiction adopted harsher, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary measures and recruited police officers to supervise discipline inside of the schools. Judge Teske testified that the increased police presence on school campuses led to higher rates of arrests and youth crime. More guns and other weapons appeared in schools and drop-out rates rose as well. Judge Teske told the commission that 92% of the 1,400 youth that were referred to juvenile court from the schools in 2012 had committed misdemeanors involving school fights, and otherwise disruptive behaviors that “made adults angry,” but did not merit arrest and court referral.
Since 1997, when crime rates were at a record high in the United States, (following more than a decade of heightened vigilance and anti-crime rhetoric aimed at the “war on drugs”), crime in the country has been steadily decreasing. Yet schools and law enforcement continue to refer youth to juvenile courts for misdemeanors and “status offenses” – infractions such as breaking curfew or underage drinking – which would not be considered criminal if committed by an adult. Youth of color – and particularly Black youth continue to be over-represented across all levels of youth corrections from school-based suspensions, detentions and expulsions to referrals to law enforcement and in-school arrests – a particularly pernicious disruptor of youth education and referral to juvenile court. And Black males are four times as likely as whites to be detained and confined following adjudication. According to the American Psychological Association, “zero tolerance” policies have undermined educational prospects for students and Black boys, who are less likely to commit status offenses.
Emerging professional opinion, qualitative research findings, and a substantive empirical literature from social psychology suggest that the disproportionate discipline of students of color may be due to lack of teacher preparation in classroom management (Vavrus & Cole, 2002), lack of training in culturally competent practices (Ferguson, 2001; Townsend, 2000), or racial stereotypes (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Graham & Lowery, 2004).
-American Psychological Association (2008)
Unlike crime, however, poverty levels are on the rise in the United States, and youth of color are also over-represented in populations most impacted by poverty. In the Morningside Heights community surrounding Teachers College – poverty levels are just over 31% – above the national average of 22%. Growing up in poverty is correlated with justice system involvement. A panel on community-school partnerships at NCJJ, described the Communities-in-Schools (CIS), program. This drop-out prevention initiative is intended to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by offering a tailored menu of direct, school and community-based interventions and added supports for students, families, classroom teachers and the wider school community to offset some of the impacts of poverty, boost academic achievement and address behavior problems. In a session offering a debrief of a CIS partnership in Texas, one judge insisted a youth whose case he oversaw be placed in a CIS school. Promising results have been noted for CIS, although measurement was hampered by widespread inconsistencies in initial assessments and data collection.
It is clear that it does take a village – and for judges in the juvenile justice system – their sphere of involvement is expanding beyond the courtroom and into the classroom. Judges have new mandates to account for the well-being of youth, although no clear consensus seems to exist on what the criteria for measuring well-being might be. In an Educating Youth session, judges from Pennsylvania discussed a sharper focus or deeper involvement in evaluating academic progress as a starting point. Judges discussed striving to minimize the “devastating effect” of school change, assessing a youth’s academic standing, and serving as an education decision-maker. Another judge mentioned trying to connect with teachers and youth every three months.
Although poverty was on the agenda as concomitant and causative factor, much of the targeted strategies seemed to address issues that arise after a child’s life trajectory has been deeply impacted by some of the harsh realities of living in poverty. So it appears critically important that the village needs funding – perhaps flowing directly to the families, schools and children directly. Families and communities need more support, access to capital, job equity, quality schools, affordable housing and an end to racial barriers to social mobility. There should also be less reliance on law enforcement to fulfill the goal of assisting youth and ensuring contact with the juvenile justice system is not a norm – especially if you’re born Black and poor. It would be worth studying how direct resource flows to families and schools might rust the faucet of the school-to-prison pipeline, and enhance a renewed commitment to community-based responses to normal adolescent behavior and end to zero-tolerance policies that corrodes school climate. Teachers are being sought as partners by judges to complete the educational picture of a court-involved youth, and for those most vulnerable youth, resources and technology should be available to facilitate teacher-court contact. And teachers must also have access to support, resources and tools to recognize and end subjective profiling of students of color that often ignites the spiral of a momentary pain-in-the-neck into a lifetime of unnecessary and costly involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?
Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report
American Factfinder, US Census, 2010
Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice (Steinberg, L. 2009)
Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dec. 12, 2012 https://drive.google.com/open?id=0ByzgNrGyoR3ySVg4ZWtrLTZubzA (Judge Teske’s testimony starts on p. 29).
“When I took the bench in 1999, I was shocked to find that approximately one-third of the cases in my courtroom were school related. The year before campus police, the court received only 49 school referrals. By 2004, the referrals increased over 2,000 per- cent, of which 92 percent were misdemeanors, mostly involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school. Despite the many arrests, school safety did not improve. Guns, knives, box-cutter knives, and straight-edge razors continued to come on campus. The graduation rates decreased during this same period, reaching an all-time low in 2003 of 58 percent. The more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled, the more juvenile crime rate significantly increased. These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency: school connectedness.” -(Teske, S. C., 2012).
The Public Assault on America’s Children