Dealing With ‘Other People’s Children’

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From an early age, Ashley Nellis recognized the social stratification in Chicago, her hometown.

She had a privileged childhood, growing up in the 1980s in a big house in Lincoln Park, with a blue-chip education at The Latin School, and years of top-flight ballet training.

And yet she was keenly aware of the destitution of those living at Cabrini Green, the vast housing project less than a mile from her home.

“We would drive home from ballet in the evening through Cabrini Green,” Nellis says. “My parents thought it was important to expose us to the whole city…I was always struck by the contrast. Even as a young child, I wondered over it: How did it end up that I was here and they were there? I knew there had to be more at play than just luck.”

Those nettling images eventually guided Nellis toward a career as a criminal justice policy analyst after she earned a Ph.D. in public affairs at American University.

As a senior staffer with The Sentencing Project, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, she has emerged as an important voice in juvenile justice, sentencing reform, and the systemic racial disparities in our justice system.

Nellis, 41, explores those themes in a new book, A Return to Justice: Rethinking Our Approach to Juveniles in the System (Rowman and Littlefield).

She provides a clear-eyed account of the “fear-driven” policies that extended America’s lock-’em-up fervor to include vast numbers of juveniles who were disproportionately black. She spoke with TCR Contributing Editor David J. Krajicek.

The Crime Report: What motivated you to write this book, and why now?

Ashley Nellis: As I detail in my book, reforms to juvenile justice over the past 15 years have been significant: a decline in youth incarceration by half, elimination of the death penalty for youth, and restrictions on the use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, to name only a few. Policymakers are adopting the scientific view that children are indeed worthy of a process that acknowledges their young age and other important differences from adults that require a separate system of justice.

TCR: What drew you to this work?

Nellis: I saw a lot of Cabrini Green when I was growing up in Chicago, and it was just devastating to see. The way they lived there was such a striking contrast to the way we lived in our big home in Lincoln Park. I came to understand that race plays a role in it all, and that I got a lot perks from white privilege…Of course, I didn’t make sense of all that until I was much older. But there’s no question that I was drawn to both justice and injustice from a young age.

TCR: The heart of the book is a withering catalog of the missteps of juvenile justice in the 1990s. You obviously feel strongly about the subject, but you avoid hyperbole. Is that the restraint of a scientist?

Nellis: I attempted to catalog the history of juvenile justice as objectively as possible, and my academic background has trained me to refrain from commentary. That said, one cannot help but conclude that the treatment of youth, particularly African-American youth, in the 1990s was misguided and fear-driven rather than science based.

TCR: You begin with a detailed review of juvenile justice history, including the 19th century House of Refuge approach that removed young people from adult prisons but was based on a questionable mix of “assimilation, salvation and repression” that focused in particular on blacks and immigrants. Explain.

Nellis: My inclusion of the early days of juvenile justice in this book was intended to shed light on the complicated beginnings of our system. From its start, the system was designed for “other people’s children,” and it is only in recent years that reforms have begun to address this and shift the focus of juvenile justice toward one that is more humane and supportive to youth. Much still needs to be done.

TCR: What are the implications of a system built to deal with “other people’s children”?

Nellis: My book catalogs significant reforms to juvenile justice in the last 15 years or so, but staggering racial disparities have persisted despite overall declines in the use detention and secure placement for youth. Without truly addressing this reality and focusing specifically on reducing racial and ethnic disparities, lasting reform that treats all youth as equally deserving of rehabilitation is not likely.

TCR: In the early 20th century, the progressive Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver advocated an individualized approach for juvenile offenders, the antithesis of penal warehousing. Did his ideas take root?

Nellis: At the time, his approach was truly novel, but (it) paved the way for today’s system which, ideally, looks at a youth’s behavior in the context of his family life, school, neighborhood, and friendship ties.

TCR: America went through a juvenile delinquency moral panic in the 1950s and 1960s, yet the Kennedy and Johnson administrations managed to institute reforms in 1961 and 1968. How did rationality prevail?

Nellis: There are two important differences between the panic of the ’50s and ’60s and the panic of the ’90s. First, most of the concern in the first era was primarily around delinquency of white youth, not black youth. This allowed for a response that relied on science and sociology to get to the root of the problem. Second, there was bold leadership and investment in eliminating delinquency through understanding its causes; this level of concern was not a part of the discussion during the 1990s. By the 1990s, American policymakers, the public and the media were invested in the strategy of “lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

TCR: You credit the late Jerome Miller for being a reform visionary who helped tip juvenile justice away from intervention in favor of diversion during the 1970s. Explain.

Nellis: The work of Jerome Miller is truly remarkable. He took one of the worst juvenile justice systems, in Massachusetts, and decided that it was so dysfunctional that it would be better to just do away with it entirely. More importantly, he correctly identified that the system itself was the problem. This view is rare in juvenile justice; most “interventions” have focused on changing youth instead of (changing) the system that they find themselves in.

TCR: And then the crack era arrived in 1985, and rationality gave way to hysteria based upon what you call “widespread circulation of grossly inaccurate predictions about juvenile violence.” As you point out, murders by juveniles spiked from ’85 to ’93. Did Americans have good reason to fear juvenile violence?

Nellis: I think they did at the time, but this should have been tempered with facts about the rise and fall of crime that is part of its nature, as well as the localization of the crime problem. As my book details, once one looks at where violence was occurring, it is easier to see why it was occurring—principally the combination of the crack market and easy access to handguns.

TCR: You cite the scholars John J. DiIulio Jr., the Penn political science professor of “superpredator” infamy, and James Alan Fox, the Northeastern University criminologist, for helping to fan the hysteria. How did DiIulio get it so wrong?

Nellis: That is a good question many still scratch their heads about. It was partly due to a gross math error, combined with the racial prejudice that was dominant at the time. It also illustrates the problem of allowing high-profile commentators to make crime policy. This is a problem that is still with us today. Consider if we were dealing with a serious illness like cancer. The obvious source for a solution would be an oncologist. But with crime, it seems that anyone with an idea and microphone can weigh in, and this has caused us to get far off track in justice. There are numerous examples of this, but the so-called superpredator is a great one.

TCR: And DiIulio’s superpredator legacy was the tough-on-juveniles federal laws, championed by President Bill Clinton and the likes of Bill McCollum, the former Florida Congressman, as well as countless state laws?

Nellis: Yes.

TCR: Meanwhile, juvenile crime had receded by the time these laws were enacted. By that point, were we looking at juvenile crime in a politicized funhouse mirror?

Nellis: Yes. Not only were the ideas terribly misguided, but they were put into policy after juvenile crime started its decline. So it tells us that there may have been more than just a temporary rise in juvenile crime that inspired the lock-’em-up era, particularly when you look at the impact it has had on African-American youth and families.

TCR: Miraculously, the narrative changed from political platitudes to nuanced discussions about adolescent brain research and evidence-based solutions. How did we get smarter all of a sudden?

Nellis: I think we can attribute a significant portion of this to heavy investments in adolescent research by private foundations, starting in the 1990s. The work of Larry Steinberg (editor’s note: a Temple professor who has written about the malleability of the adolescent brain) and others was a game-changer. This, combined with the Supreme Court’s heavy use of adolescent research in its 2005 ruling that juveniles cannot receive the death penalty, inserted a serious reality check into the ways in which America, which claims to be a world leader on human rights, was treating its children.

TCR: Are research and data in the field getting better?

Nellis: I think so. It’s a slow process because it can be a challenge for some to see the value of systematic data collection and reporting in creating change, but it is a vital part of the process of reform.

TCR: You write that imprisonment is now widely believed to be counterproductive for most juvenile offenders. What does work?

Nellis: For youth in particular, the act of removing them from their school, family and community environment is extremely disruptive to normal development. To the extent that youth who break the law can receive treatment in the community and maintain their ties to friends, school, and family, this should be attempted. Most research finds this to be the best approach.

TCR: There are still about 35,000 juveniles under lock and key in state institutions. That’s down by more than half from its peak, but it’s still a big number, right?

Nellis: It is. A look at the rates of commitment shows that some states are still relying far too heavily on confinement as a strategy for reducing juvenile delinquency despite evidence that it doesn’t often work.

TCR: Is juvenile incarceration a forerunner? Can we expect these sorts of population declines in adult prisons?

Nellis: The 50 percent decline in juvenile commitments is indeed remarkable. Juvenile justice systems are fortunate to be smaller, more local entities, and this makes it easier to implement changes that have diverted investment in confinement and incentivized the reliance on alternatives to detention. It would be terrific to see juvenile justice serve as a model for the adult criminal justice system.

TCR: Looking back over the two-century arc of U.S. juvenile justice history, the draconian policies of the ’90s stand out amid a gradual progression toward passionate treatment for the young. What would it take to scuttle the reforms again?

Nellis: Sadly, I don’t think it would take much. As a society we have not truly faced the racial and ethnic disparities that lie at the core of system of justice. Incidents in the past few years—starting with the gunning down of Trayvon Martin in Florida and most recently with the failure to indict the officers responsible for the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland—suggest that we have a long way to go in coming to value the life of young black teens.

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He writes frequently about crime and justice for TCR, the New York Daily News, Alternet and others. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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