In a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation publication about the trends in juvenile incarceration during the pandemic, Nate Balis, director of the foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, notes, “Jurisdictions have told us they think that longer lengths of stay in detention are being driven by a detention population that now only contains youth with the most serious offenses and complex cases.”
While the focus of the article was the impact of the coronavirus on lengths of stay and racial disproportionality, both critically important topics, it was the acknowledgment of a different detention population that captured my attention.
Balis and Casey have for decades presided over the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI — by any measure a wildly successful attempt to bring rationality to the front door of the pretrial process. My colleague and friend Earl Dunlap described the initiative best in 2009 at the foundation’s annual conference:
“There can be no doubt that the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) of the Annie E. Casey Foundation is the greatest single juvenile justice system reform effort in our lifetime. The changes in daily practices of the juvenile courts in JDAI jurisdictions are staggering, and the access to high-quality, reform-related programs, services, and materials is, at worst, superior to anything the field has ever experienced.”
Those in the detention practice arena marvel at the JDAI-inspired reductions in the average daily population. Detention workers breathe collective sighs of relief as it plummets and the negative effects of crowding dissipate.
For example, the Cook County Juvenile Court JDAI Project reduced the number of detainees from a high of 800 to around 300 at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Since about four of five detainees were Black, a drop of 500 youth in the average daily population meant at minimum, 400 Black youth had been diverted from secure detention. The decrease is unquestionably impressive, even staggering. It was also a factor in the success of the U.S. District Court-ordered reform of conditions at Chicago’s detention center, demonstrating a much better way to work with high-risk kids.
Yet, at an average daily population of 300, Chicago’s proportion of Black detainees increased while whites decreased. Other jurisdictions noted similar outcomes, raising the question: Do juvenile detention reforms work better for white youth? The unintended consequence was more disproportionality.
This is an unfair question and criticism. The fault is not in the JDAI reform principles nor in their presentation. After 15 years and following the JDAI-influenced drop in average daily population, Evident Change (formerly called the National Council on Crime and Delinquency) reported Black youth arrested at 5 times the rate of white youth but detained at 46 times the rate, one of the higher differentials ever recorded.
Racial and ethnic disparities are not unique to Cook County, but these data validate the need for new approaches. Consider Dr. Miquel Lewis and Avik Das’ Committee on Results for Equity (C.O.R.E.), a staff-led acknowledgment and confrontation of the role the probation department plays in upholding systemic racism.
But Casey and JDAI leaders do not discuss how its reforms alter detention populations and services. Practitioners from the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, of which I am one member, have asked them for a decade or so to talk about the mounting seriousness and complexities of post-reform detainees and the additional burdens on direct care staff.
This has frustrated those of us who celebrate the evisceration of unnecessary detention, but seek to make it a safe and productive period of time for those youth who really do need to be there. Absent hard data supporting perceptions of a changed group of youth, subjective claims rarely resonate.
Jason Melchi of Empact Solutions is spot on in his assertion that our dreams about what is possible are fueled by data-driven information on our systems of care. Now, emerging knowledge is available to support the claims of post-reform detention population differences.
Many practitioners, including myself, view the excellent JDAI Self-Assessment Instrument for Juvenile Detention Facilities as the best benchmarks of helpful conditions of confinement. Perhaps rigorously beneficial enough to resolve the post-reform complexities? Maybe yes, but even “gold” standards may not be enough.
A 1938 letter from Loyola University’s Father Gallagher to Cook County Juvenile Judge F.H. Bicek is the earliest reference I’ve found where advocates, including several from other local universities, recommended that juvenile detention should be used only for youth with the highest risks of harm. Historically, the National Partnership for Juvenile Services has continuously supported this wisdom.
On this count, the JDAI reforms have been enthusiastically endorsed. Yet the initiative’s outcomes reveal a need to recalibrate every aspect of post-reform juvenile detention operations. I hope that Nate Balis’ comment is the seedling from which a fruitful dialogue can sprout.