JJ Today

Safety from the Public?

December 04, 2008 by John Kelly

There are well-known criteria that often go into the decision to keep a juvenile in a detention center or commitment facility. Two of them are:

Did the youth commit a serious violent offense?

Has he established a propensity to re-offend when the system lets him stay in the community?

But publicized criticism of two high-profile JJ systems - those of Washington, D.C., and Multnomah County, Ore. - seem to suggest that systems should assess the mirror image of those criteria. A bit of background ...

Case One: Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, has long served as a model site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Some of the rural counties in the state are now implementing JDAI's approach to detention admissions, but the whole JDAI experience in Oregon has an enemy in Steve Doell, president of a group called Crime Victims United.

In May, CVU released a 104-page report criticizing the county's embrace of JDAI's approach. The thrust of the report, which reads like a very long opinionated paper, is that juveniles are released pretrial too often and are not supervised well when they are.

Presumably, CVU's concern that prompted the report is that these juveniles may commit crimes while they're out. And yet the report is dedicated to the memory of, and dedicates an entire chapter to, a Portland teen named Davonte Lightfoot, a teenager who was found murdered in 2006 after being placed on electronic monitoring.

Case Two: In Washington, JJ Today's hometown, it is no secret to residents that the city has some issues with violent teens. While most D.C. teens are good kids in a city that has little to offer them, some have developed nasty (and sometimes fatal) territorial beefs in some neighborhoods.

In 2005, the city brought in national juvenile justice expert Vincent Schiraldi to fix its Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services. His agency is responsible for all adjudicated youth and any who are detained by a judge until their trials (about 700 youths this year); Court Social Services Division is responsible for youth on probation (about 2,500).

Schiraldi's approach, in a nutshell, has been this: Divert nonviolent offenders to alternative community programs, place youths whose primary needs are drug- or mental health-related in residential treatment facilities, and use its correctional facility, Oak Hill, only for the most serious and violent offenders sent to DYRS.

But after one week in early August, when 10 of the 35 people arrested in D.C. for violent crimes were juveniles, Washington Post columnist Colby King began what has become a weekly stream of opinion pieces criticizing the city's handling of juvenile offenders. DYRS and its commitment to keep more kids in the community were and are his biggest targets, although he has begun to look more pointedly at the court's performance.

King has certainly made reference to youths who were released and offended again. But his examples of system failure have very frequently included teens who were killed while under the city's supervision.

The details of both situations are interesting, but are not the point here. The common denominator between CVU and King is that both seem to suggest that juvenile justice systems ought to protect their youth from free society, even if it means locking them up, which turns everything about the use of secure confinement on its head. 

"Does that mean the best that the wealthiest country in world can do is keep kids locked up" to keep them safe? Schindler muses.

Moreover, is it a juvenile justice system's fault if a youth gets killed? The word "supervision" appears all over King's columns, and to many of us, it conjures the image of supervising children in the home, or at an after-school program. The expectation in that scenario, of course, is that a supervising adult pretty much knows what the youth or youths are doing at all times.

But on the street? Let's say a youth checks in, face to face, three times a day with a case manager. He says nothing about fearing for his life, doesn't fail to meet any conditions placed on him as far as the case manager can tell.

If that youth is murdered at 3 a.m., as one of DYRS' wards was last summer, did the system fail to supervise him?

"His bad decision should not result in him getting killed," Schindler says of the youth. "Where I grew up, if I'm out at 3 a.m., I'm not gonna get killed. Is that a failure of DYRS to supervise? At some level, people are individuals."

Bottom line, he says: "We should absolutely do what we can in terms of case planning and supervision, so that youth under our care are as safe and secure as possible ... [but] we are also subject to the reality that many of our young people live in communities that are too violent and challenged with other ills of society."

All that said, youths are definitely kept locked up for their own protection. For example, Eleanor Molina is in charge of a community custody program for the juvenile justice system in Bernalillo County, N.M. The youths sent to her have had a judge deem them OK for return to their families before trial.

But if she finds out a youth is in one gang, and is charged with a serious crime against a member of another gang? Molina told JJ Today there is a solid chance she is sending that kid back to the judge with a recommendation that he be detained.

In D.C., Schindler says, "We have kept kids locked up. ... That has absolutely happened."

The example Schindler remembers best is one youth who had rapidly made progress socially and academically at Oak Hill, and DYRS decided he was ready to be released. His grandmother, who at the time was on Oak Hill's advisory board, pleaded with the agency to keep him. "She told us, ‘Don't send him home. I think someone's looking for him that keeps coming by the house. I fear for my grandson's life if you release him,' " Schindler recalled.

The teen told staff members that grandma was just being a worrier, but DYRS held the youth until it could come up with a plan. Painful but necessary, Schindler says: "Here's a kid who did everything asked of him, and yet was still incarcerated."

He ended up in an independent living program in Baltimore.

In Portland, a judge and JJ personnel chose not to act on similar information in Davonte Lightfoot's case. He told juvenile services personnel that he feared for his life, and his mother asked that he be placed elsewhere after several probation violations, according to CVU's conversations with the mother. In January of 2007,  District Attorney Nathan Vasquez told the local newspaper that he had sought placement in a correctional facility for Lightfoot.

"Based on what I was seeing in his history, it was my belief that he was in danger of either shooting someone or being killed himself," Vasquez told a reporter from the Oregonian.

We would love to hear anyone's thoughts on the subject. Is locking a juvenile up for his own safety ever appropriate, and if so, under what circumstances? Leave a comment if you have an opinion.


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Comment by: Benjamin Chambers on December 08, 2008 John - perceptive of you to note that CVU's report showcased a tragedy that is decidedly different in its implications from the usual fear that a youth who is inappropriately released will hurt someone else, rather than be a victim. I can say with authority that decisions are made every day by probation officers and judges to lock youth up to protect them. And that's okay, but it's a slippery slope, especially if it contributes to disproportionate minority confinement. The research is very clear that the more we pull youth into the system -- whatever the rationale -- the more likely they are to return. It's important not to lose sight of that.

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