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.”
UNO’s Justice Center recently released a report recommending a needs assessment to work alongside the risk assessment adopted a few years ago.
“In Douglas County, I believe great strides have been made in proper assessment of youth to determine levels of risk to reoffend,” said center director Ryan Spohn. “These assessments are then used to prevent the unnecessary juvenile justice filings or detentions of low and medium-risk youth.
“A lot of these youth are high needs youth, with problems in the home or at school. They may have come out as low or medium risk but there are needs that need to be addressed or the next time they come to the attention of authorities they may be higher risk. Alternatives to Detention providers don’t know youth needs in the absence of an assessment, so they aren’t identified, at least not in an evidence-based fashion.
“Even if needs are identified, there’s not a funding source or formal entity or agency for addressing those needs. I think that’s a shortcoming of our system. Iowa has a Child in Need of Care program targeting high need status offenders. The idea is that this is a high needs youth, so let’s assess for needs and address them before they become a delinquent.”
The center also recommends training for any professionals involved in the system. Spohn said, “They’ll be better outcomes for youth if everybody’s on the same page and has the same definition of things.”
Similarly, he said, “sharing information across systems only makes sense, particularly if our goal is to help this youth and their family be better.”
“More information about their situation is a good thing, When we interview youth and family who’ve been through the system we often find nobody asked what they thought the causes were or what could be done about this. Youth Impact Initiative has been successful for Crossover Youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The initiative brings that youth and family together with professionals from both sides. The prosecutor’s there, too, and with that information they’re able to find a better solution like diversion.”
Spohn believes JDAI has been less than successful in keeping some low and medium risk youth out of detention – which is the whole point of the thing,” adding, “We still probably do have youth that end up in detention that shouldn’t be there.”
“It’s really important we reserve incarceration for the kids who scare us, not for the kids who just make us anger or irritate us,” Summers said. “It in itself can be so harmful, especially to lower risk youth.”
“The success rate is much better if they’re at home with their family. It’s more cost effective, too,” Pannkuk said.
“Any funding that can go towards prevention and intervention rather than punishment and detention, which is incredibly expensive, would be a smarter way to spend the dollars we have,” Spohn said.
Stennis-Williams witnesses the fallout through the Reconnect Success diversion program she runs.
“When I see kids come into my program, I see the system failure. When I go to the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, I see the result of that failure.”
Equity is paramount.