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.
“Every youth should be given every opportunity. It shouldn’t be because of where you live or the color of your skin or whether you’re poor or not,” LeFlore said.
Stennis-Williams and LeFlore want more diversity among juvenile justice professionals.
“A diverse staff allows you to learn from the beauty of diversity and understand the cultural issues and situations,” Stennis-Williams said.
She and LeFlore also advocate for legacy and current system families to have more voice and agency at the table. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” she said. “We have to create a genuinely inclusive environment that welcomes to hear the frustrations folks are having,” LeFlore said.
“You really can’t get systems change without community involvement and engagement and getting people around the tables and having honest conversations,” Summers said.
Pannkuk said OYS endeavors to move to “a customer service as opposed to system-driven approach.”
Though statutes require Douglas County youth be provided legal counsel, Summers said in much of Neb. “there can be incredible differences in the access kids get to this constitutional right for an advocate.”
LeFlore said minus counsel youth and families often lack the ability to make informed choices.
Wherever reforms happen, Spohn said, there’s a cascade effect.
“It’s not like if there’s a change in one level of juvenile justice it doesn’t impact the other levels. All these systems are interconnected. Any progress in one part may look like we’ve taken a step back in another part because the kids don’t just disappear – they’re just addressed by different stages of the system.”
“There’s been some small gains but not enough to make the impact we need to reform our system,” Stennis-Williams said. “These kids and families are suffering. It’s time for Douglas County to step in and take ownership of juvenile justice reform.”
She wants the county “to create an office of public advocacy to look at the numbers and then drill down to see what’s causing it and then make recommendations”
Juvenile Justice Center’s Anne Hobbs said progress has been made but added, “It’s just hard to see because we’re in the middle of the stream.” She said more uniform best practices would net more progress.
“There’s a ton of diversion models and programs and every county attorney runs them just a little bit differently. We need to figure out what works in Nebraska. To do that you need all the programs to use the same definitions, agree to the same terminology and then enter data into a system and then you’ll get results from across the state on the same program types.”
Her center built, with the Nebraska Crime Commission, a statewide evaluation system that does just that.
“We’re able now to evaluate all those programs across the entire state using the same scoring mechanism. As a state we’re now counting things the same way and, as ridiculous as it sounds, in Douglas County there’s now agreement on certain race and ethnic categories.”
Spohn is cautiously hopeful but rues the system’s local, siloed nature makes it resistant to widespread change.
“One frustration is getting people to listen and learn as opposed to rebut,” Pannkuk said. “The bigger frustration is just the complete complexity of the system. The devil’s in the details. You’ve got multiple large entities trying to figure out how best to serve the uniqueness of one individual. But they’re trying, they’re all really trying.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.