The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has been implemented in 110 jurisdictions across the country, with 19 states signing on as state-level partners with the goal of replicating JDAI statewide. The theory behind the project, which has been operating for the past two decades, is that many juveniles are better served by alternatives to detention such as house arrest programs, day and evening reporting programs and weekend programs that focus on education, teaching children to be successful on their own.
By Mary Branham
As a state legislator, Tom Swisstack was used to seeing people visit the legislature to lobby for projects, whether roads or tax incentives or new buildings.
But as the director of a state juvenile detention center, he noticed something was missing.
“There wasn’t a constant lobbying force or anybody who had experience working with kids after they were arrested,” said Swisstack, who left the legislature at the end of 2007 and is now mayor of Rio Rancho, N.M., a suburb of Albuquerque.
As director for the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention and Youth Services Center in Albuquerque, Swisstack brought the background of working with troubled youth to the table. He knew many of the youth detained in communities across New Mexico were actually high needs kids, not necessarily high risk kids.
They just needed a better juvenile system, one that provides alternatives tailored to suit children’s needs, because not every child who is arrested needs to be put in juvenile detention—the equivalent of jail for kids. And putting those low-level offenders in detention is not a good idea, many in the juvenile justice system believe.
“Do you really want a kid who stole a bicycle … detained with a child that’s charged with committing capital murder? You don’t,” said Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.
In fact, Swisstack said, only 17 percent of juvenile offenders are a danger to themselves or the community or won’t show up for court—the rest, the majority of juvenile offenders, don’t need detention.
So New Mexico started looking for other ways to deal with these juvenile offenders. They settled on the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, a program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation designed to address juvenile justice issues across the U.S. Swisstack argued that not only would the program better serve New Mexico’s youth, it also offered the advantage of saving money.
“What I tried to do was take children’s issues and talk about it in economic terms,” he said. “I talked about the cost of incarceration versus the cost of community-based programs.”
Mark Ferrante, director of leadership and training programs for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said the cost-savings are just the most obvious benefit of JDAI.
“It sort of makes sense that if you are able to provide for community-based alternatives for youth, it’s going to be a lot less expensive than it is to house youth in detention,” Ferrante said. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice is a Casey Foundation grant recipient and works with the state advisory groups, which are appointed by each state’s governor, that are charged with fulfilling the purposes and spirit of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
The other benefit, he said, is that JDAI communities are able to maintain public safety, mainly because the youth in detention are low-level offenders.
Communities across the U.S. are seeing similar results. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 24 of the 110 JDAI sites across the country cut their detention populations by at least half as of this June.
“Most successful JDAI sites not only have reduced their detention populations, they’ve also reduced the number of kids they commit to the state youth corrections system,” said Bart Lubow, director of the Program for High Risk Youth at the Casey Foundation.
The Casey Foundation has worked on juvenile justice reform through JDAI for the past two decades. Its model project in Broward County, Fla., has grown into a national model that many jurisdictions and states are adopting. Nineteen states have signed on as state-level JDAI partners with the goal of replicating JDAI statewide, according to “Two Decades of JDAI: From Demonstration Project to National Standard,” a progress report published by the Casey Foundation in September 2009.
“We’re a foundation whose entire mission is devoted to improving the life chances of the nation’s most vulnerable, most disadvantaged, most troubled children,” Lubow said. “We find those kids disproportionately in juvenile justice.”
Separating the Offenders
As JDAI programs emphasize, not all juvenile offenders are alike. And many of the low-level offenders can be influenced negatively when placed with the high-level offenders, those in the justice systems say.
“Mixing kids who really don’t need to be in detention because their crimes are not that violent …. with very heavy duty juvenile offenders is a recipe for disaster,” said Richard Lindahl, a retired New Mexico juvenile justice specialist who now consults with the state on juvenile justice issues. “They learn from tougher kids. It’s not a good mix.”
His state adopted a statewide risk assessment instrument to determine what would best serve the interests of the youth and the community.
Many in juvenile justice say some youth should not be in detention. Alabama rewrote its juvenile code and eliminated a court regulation, which allowed kids who hadn’t even committed a crime—they were either truant or ungovernable, Cobb said—to be locked up. That helped to reduce the number of juvenile detainments across Alabama, ranging from a 44 percent drop in Jefferson County up to a 69 percent drop in Tuscaloosa County, Cobb said. Four Alabama counties are participating in JDAI, but changes in philosophy have also spurred a drop in detention in other counties.
In order to determine which youth should be in detention, those in juvenile justice say states should separate the level of offenders and address the problems those youth face.
The first step in separating the level of offenders, said Lubow of JDAI, is changing the mindset of adults involved in the system. That means discarding the system’s “traditional reliance on myth, anecdote and worst cases.”
Lubow said analysis of detention utilization found it was idiosyncratic to sites. “It was not driven by juvenile misbehavior; it was driven by the decisions and behaviors of adults who work in and manage the system,” he said.
The detention populations across the country don’t always just include serious offenders, he said. “The majority of kids in detention are kids who have aggravated or frustrated or angered an adult, more than the kids who we are afraid of,” Lubow said.
When jurisdictions realize that, he said, many look to other strategies to deal with those offenders.
Ferrante of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice said many in the justice system believe detention is the safest place for juvenile offenders. “In reality, detention is not a safe place for kids,” he said. “They can sort of get sucked into the milieu in a detention center.”