Unequal Justice Juvenile Detention Numbers Are Down, But Bias Persists – Part 1

Juvenile justice reform in Neb. has long been a hot topic of debate, study and legislation.

A labyrinth of statutes, jurisdictions, agencies and rules makes navigating the system difficult. Youth committing even minor offenses can face detention, probation or diversion depending on who they intersect with in the system. Child welfare professionals seek rehabilitation. Prosecutors push accountability.

Different philosophies, policies and competing interests can lead to unnecessary confinement, Lives get disrupted. Slow case processing can keep kids in an-in-system limbo awaiting adjudication.

A major Douglas County juvenile justice reform initiative, Operation Youth Success, uses a collective impact model to try and improve system coordination and communication for desired better youth outcomes. Its stakeholder players span law enforcement officials and judges to educators and service providers.

"A work group is working specifically trying to cut times kids are detained and the time it takes cases to get through court," said OYS director Janee Pannkuk.

"We're collecting data on where are those bottlenecks."

Extenuating circumstances aren't always acknowledged.

"There's so many things that influence why a kid makes a decision," Pannkuk said. "We've had kids shoplift because they needed hygiene products or candy bars, so it was more a child welfare issue – but then it became a criminal justice issue. For it really to be effective it needs to work at an individual level. We're talking about a macro system trying to operate at a micro level. A lot of times big systems don't respond well to the individual piece."

"It's so easy for others to judge families," Douglas County Youth Center Douglas County Youth Center Manager of Administrative Services Mark LeFlore said. "I'm not saying families aren't responsible but there's shared responsibility. You just can't put it all on the family. Families in a lot of cases are doing their best and they need to be recognized for their efforts, not minimized."

"A youth makes a mistake and it has a ripple effect on families. In some cases that individual helps support the family by working or is directly responsible for younger siblings while the parent works. With that individual out of the house, it changes the dynamics and families struggle with those changes."

When youth are detained without cause, said UNO Justice Center director Roger Spohn, "you're probably going to make this kid worse rather than better."

If that youth is an African-American male in Douglas County, then his contact with the system is on average longer and harsher than for his white counterparts.

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) plagues the state's juvenile justice system.

"If you're on an unlawful absence warrant or if you're a runaway you're going to stay twice as long in detention as a non-minority for the same charge," LeFlore said.

"It's not working equally or equitably for all of our different youth," Voices for Children in Nebraska analyst Juliet Summers said. "The best example of that is youth in detention. We've cut our detention numbers statewide almost in half but the disproportionality has gone dramatically up. We need to figure out what we're doing systemically that is not supporting particular groups of youth in receiving the same positive outcomes."

LeFlore agrees bias persists.

"We're going to have to change the conversation, do a better job understanding how this is occurring and have some coming together of those involved in the decision-making process to ask ourselves, 'What can we do differently?'"

We're finding we need to dig a lot deeper, especially when it comes to Disproportionate Minority Contact," Pannkuk said. "We have to have the data to make sure it's not assumptions or anecdotes but facts."

Spohn said while OYS "has had some real wins – reducing arrests in Omaha schools and bringing good training to School Resource Officers" – they've had less success with DMC.

Observers applaud the recent hire of A'Jamal Byndon as Douglas County's first DMC Coordinator.

"That's a big accomplishment," said LaVon Stennis-Williams, who with LeFlore co-chairs the DMC committee for Operation Youth Success.

But DMC issues extend statewide, said Juvenile Justice Institute director Anne Hobbs.

"Different parts of the state have different battles they're fighting. In Douglas County, it's African-American youth disadvantaged, but in other parts of the state it's Native American youth and Hispanic youth."

Another large effort charged with reform is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) launched in 2011.

"We now have seven years of initiatives and we're no closer to bringing a more compassionate, effective, fair system to our kids than when we first got started," said Stennis-Williams.

No one system touch point is the answer,

"I was of the mindset that if we did everything better at the Youth Center it would effect the overall numbers in juvenile justice," LeFlore said. "We added significant programming, levels of education, extra teachers, brought in community providers, surveyed the students, got recognized as a facility of excellence. Despite those efforts recidivism has gone up, minorities coming back into the system continues at a high rate. I see the same young people coming back over and over.

"The challenge is how do we address the needs of  youth on a pathway into the juvenile justice system to systematically change that pathway. One thing for sure – it's going to take more than the Youth Center. It's clear not one segment alone is enough to change the numbers. It's going to take all of the players."
Leo Adam Biga

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