Edgar Cahn, who built one of D.C.’s first juvenile diversion programs around his concept of “time banking,” has passed away at the age of 86.
Cahn founded the Time Dollar Institute in 1995 to help set up community time banks, a framework for service that Cahn had been building since the early 1980s. The idea at the root of them is simple: an hour of service to others is banked as a single credit, and those credits can be used to receive the services and help of others. The organization, now known as TimeBanks, counts 134 different banks in operation around the globe.
One of the first was a juvenile diversion program called the Time Dollar Youth Court, opened a year after Cahn founded his organization. Instead of being funneled into the traditional juvenile justice pipeline, youth referred to Cahn’s court would be judged by peers assembled as a volunteer jury — all banking time credits for their contribution — to determine the appropriate way for them to make right on a law violation. After the trial, part of the process was for that youth to then sit on another volunteer jury.
“He created a new way to link untapped social capacity to unmet social needs and for communities to come together to help promote trust, reciprocity, and citizen engagement,” TimeBanks said, in a statement on his passing posted to the organization’s website. “In the most beautiful way, Edgar moved people from his heart. He made each person feel that their problem is important and that he has all the time in the world for them.”
In the late 2000s, Cahn and fellow juvenile justice legal expert Cynthia Robbins began to work on a legal theory of systems change in juvenile justice based on a precedent of “deliberate indifference” established in the 1989 Supreme Court case Canton v. Harris. In a nutshell, Cahn and Robbins theory was that if it could be established that a local or state system was aware of more effective and cheaper ways to engage youth — as opposed to an expensive reliance on lockups and detention centers — and willfully chose to ignore that information, then litigation could be used to successfully compel such changes.
The duo were successful in establishing several public information hearings — to establish the basis that systems were aware of the better alternatives — in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as in Washington, D.C. In an interview with Youth Services Insider this week, Robbins said they never got past the hearing stage because of a lack of financial resources.
“What we needed was litigation prowess,” Robbins said. “But the goal was to engage the community in pushing for change, and I feel it was a success in that sense.”
As a litigation theory, she said, “I would say it has not been fully tested.”
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1963, Cahn became special counsel and speechwriter to Robert F. Kennedy during his time as Attorney General. Later, Cahn and his late wife, Jean Camper Cahn, founded a law school at D.C.’s Antioch College, which emerged as a breeding ground for social justice-oriented legal scholars and practitioners in both juvenile justice and child welfare. When Antioch hit financial troubles, the city purchased it, and the David A. Clarke School of Law.
“Edgar Cahn was one of a kind,” said Andrew Ferguson, author and law professor at American University, in a tweet remarking on Cahn’s life. “He reimagined legal services, clinical education, systems change, racial justice, co-producing value — he envisioned, educated, and advocated for a better world and accomplished so much.”