from my Art of Social Change course facilitated by Betsy Bartholett and Jessica Budniz
During Week 10, Bryan Stevenson, Naoka Carey, and Josh Dohan cautioned of how the criminal justice system had retreated back to treating juveniles as adults though the juvenile justice movement sought an independent system that acknowledges the real differences between child and adult psychological development. Last session during Week 11, Tim Decker and Edward Dolan added to the weekly discourse of how many children in the United States begin life and enter adulthood with fewer opportunities to be productive, healthy people. Mr. Decker and Mr. Dolan took what we learned steps farther by explaining that the trade-offs between due process and rehabilitation for juveniles has resulted in children experiencing grotesquely punitive treatment in youth corrections institutions.
Usually when one hears about public safety concerns, the concerns are about keeping the public (outsiders) safe from a potential perpetrator. The intriguing part of the Mr. Decker’s Missouri and Mr. Dolan’s Massachusetts centers is that authority figures focus on the public safety of everyone including the resident juveniles. Specially trained staff is a key component of the Missouri model’s success and Mr. Dolan admitted he would like to see Massachusetts transition from adults with correctional backgrounds to more adults with college specialties in working with troubled youth. Both models seek to use a holistic approach incorporating an assumption that physical safety works in conjunction with emotional and psychological safety. To underscore the complex and intertwined issues these youth face, Mr. Dolan shared that 45% of youth in his institutions have special education diagnosis and 35% have histories of violent crimes. Mr. Decker shared that 20% of his youth had records of prior placements in child welfare systems and 66% of the youth had felony histories. Once both men accepted that business as usual down traditional paths of restraining youth and forcing compliance was not working, they took responsibility for creatively rethinking what it would take for institutions to meet these juvenile’s needs. As Mr. Dolan shared, this means switching the adult frameworks to asset-based thinking around what a juvenile has going for him instead of his personal, family, or community deficits. Similarly, Mr. Decker measures the Missouri model’s success rate with youth instead of the recidivism rate in order to focus the adults toward achieving positive outcome with the juvenile residents.
But even the best juvenile incarceration models like the Missouri Model represent an acknowledgment on the backend for what could be mitigated on the front end: the state is assuming a role in these youth’s lives often because few social safety nets were initially provided to the child. “Intervention after the fact . . . is costly” because it requires resources to be consumed (Nobody’s Children at 54). In programs like those run by Mr. Decker and Mr. Dolan, treatment, staffing, building space and leases, furnishings and equipment, and court fees are all sources of transactional costs and public expenditures. In these economic times, there is an incredible opportunity to import the work of Mr. Decker and Mr. Dolan to alleviate strains of overcrowded systems, if change agents can convince the public that lump-sum front-end investments have definite impacts with youth and on local institutions.