Reforming the Juvenile Justice System – Four Lessons from an Expert

by Benjamin Chambers

Below are four lessons in reforming the juvenile justice system that I gleaned from a recent interview with Bart Lubow, Director of the Programs for High Risk Youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (pictured below). He’s best known for his pioneering work leading the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which helps jurisdictions safely reduce unnecessary reliance on juvenile  detention and stimulate other reforms, notably reducing disproportionate minority confinement. –Ed.

photo of Bart Lubow

Lesson #1: Be Specific About What You’re Changing
"The biggest reason why system reform efforts fail is that they don’t provide system players with an alternative set of policies and programs. Instead, they provide a lot of vague talk, such as, ‘We’ve gotta collaborate,’ or ‘We’ve got to be different,’ etc.  Without providing the guts of the new, re-engineered system, the status quo prevails. Though people are often critical of initiatives that are relatively prescriptive in terms of laying out the elements of the system reform, it’s a naïve proposition to expect the status quo to be overcome without a lot of operational detail. There can be lots of room for local adaptation, but within a fairly prescriptive framework."

 
Lesson #2: Tell Your Staff and Partners What You’re Doing and Why
"It’s important to think of communications as something that goes well beyond media relations. It needs to be strategic and support what’s going on; it needs to articulate the ambitions and values of your system reform and make the case in genuinely persuasive ways that don’t sound like a lot of policy-wonk nonsense."
 
Lesson #3: Keeping it Going – It Ain’t About the Money
"I believe the vast majority of discussions about sustainability are completely misplaced, because they’re about money. I don’t think sustainability has much to do with that. It has to do with changes to policy and procedures, training, human resource approaches, and leadership.
 
"It ain’t about the money.
 
"Sustainability is not mysterious stuff – if you want to sustain the changes that you make to policy and practice, you need to do that by building those changes into the basic infrastructure of the system. That means everything needs to reflect your new philosophy and principles. If it doesn’t, you’ve just missed the boat. If you haven’t changed the probation training curriculum, there’s no way your system change will get organically passed down from staff member to staff member; if you don’t have human resources tools in place that constantly reinforce the values or practices, then you can’t reward people based on your new agenda.
 
"For example, if you were implementing detention reform and you were developing an annual performance review system for supervisors, you might want to reward people differentially based on whether staff are using detention alternatives correctly or whether they’re consistently throwing kids into detention. In other words, align your practices with your values. Promote people who reflect the system reform. Develop a succession plan that’s designed to ensure that your system reforms survive new leaders. Formally rewrite policies and procedures – the legal infrastructure of a public system. If you don’t, then all of your changes go by the wayside. Those sorts of things are at the heart of sustainability."
 
Lesson #4: In Lean Times, Support What Works, Not the Status Quo

"I think public administrators make horrible mistakes when confronted with budget cuts. They tend to protect their public bureaucracy first and foremost. That may mean that which came on last – innovations – are the first thing to go. The easiest thing to do is to cut contracts, not personnel. That’s a bad mistake, and that’s not where I would go, because I would view that as letting go of stuff that is most innovative, that most affects kids of color. Quite honestly – and I say this as a former probation administrator – we’ve had over 150 years of the probation model. I think it’s time to find some other models. The biggest mistake you can make is to preserve the bureaucracy. I think administrators should invest in what works, not who’s on their payroll."