Kids Behind Bars: Live Blogging from the John Jay/Tow Foundation on Juvenile Justice


Journalists and Experts gather at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a conference on juvenile justice

Where’s the justice in America’s juvenile justice system? That is the question that an assembled group of journalists and criminal justice experts from across the nation gathered to discuss at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

8:40 AM -The morning opened with a keynote address from Gail Garinger, the Massachusetts child advocate and former juvenile court judge. She spoke about some of the seemingly random things that juveniles can be brought to court for, including she says a case she remembers well, of a child throwing jello in a school cafeteria.

9:30 AM-11:00 AM Panel 1 From Super Predators to plunging Juvenile Justice Rates: What have we learned?

Panelists include: Mark Soler, Vice-President and Executive Director, Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Vincent N. Schiraldi, Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation, Ricardo Martinez, Co-Director Padres & Jovenes Unidos, David Utter, Director of Policy, Florida Office Southern Policy Law Center

Vincent Schiraldi, Commissioner, NYC Department of Probation spoke about how most Americans thought that their kids were likely to get shot in school during the Columbine massacre period, even though crime was down. These thoughts have resulted in the zero tolerance outlook, he said, and the daily coverage lends itself to those fears. He says be skeptical of information that you hear.

Mark Soler , Executive Director of Center for Children’s Law and Policy, spoke about two important foundation programs; one is the juvenile detention alternative initiative to reduce population on detention facilities from the Annie Casey Foundation. The programs runs in over 150 jurisdictions and the Web site is He also spoke about Models for Change, an initiative run by MacArthur Foundation. The Web site is

Soler tells reporters that there are many experts in your area that will sit down and give background on juvenile justice outlook.

11:00 AM-12:30 PM Panel 2: Are today’s Juvenile Justice Reforms Just Convenient Politics?

Panelists include: Elizabeth Scott, Professor of Law, Columbia University Law School, Gladys Carrion, Commissioner, New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Marc Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice, Daniel Chaney, Director, Juvenile Services Division, Department of Children and Family Services, Wayne County, MI

Elizabeth Scott spoke about how attitudes have changed in the last decade towards juvenile justice and she believes the budgetary impact of incarceration plays into the reform. Legislators didn’t realize in the 1990s how expensive institutional placements would be and that has led to a recent rethinking of these placements leaning towards community based programs for juveniles. She also touched on adolescent brain research, reinforcing the idea of how juvenile brains are different than adults, which can contribute to juveniles committing crimes. Lots of children get involved in criminal activities but will move out of the system if given the correct tools to rehabilitate.

Scott said that moral panic can happen in many social situations, what distinguishes a moral panic from a sensible response is a sense of how serious the threat is to the public. Scott mentioned how Colorado changed and abolished the juvenile life without parole after a series of articles about this issue.

In the last five years New York has focused on a rejuvenation of the juvenile justice system, said New York State Commissioner Gladys Carrion. She is responsible for administering juvenile justice after adjudication, the detention system and child welfare system. There is a very strong cross over between child welfare system and juvenile justice system, said Carrion. One of the major challenges in New York is the unions. Changing the juvenile justice system means closing detention centers and for the union that means jobs. Most of the detention centers are upstate where there aren’t many jobs or economic development, and the media and advocates need to support the changes so the facilities can be closed. Carrion closed 18 centers in 5 years, 900 beds and over 1,000 jobs in the juvenile justice field. She said they created new jobs in different areas (like programming) to fulfill the economic loss.

Carrion spoke about the lack of mental health services in the juvenile detention system. The cost of keeping a young person incarcerated was over $220,000 annually five years ago and now it is $266,000/ a year with terrible outcomes. While there have been vast improvements in juvenile detentions Carrion argues that only the most violent offenders should be held in facilities, and the majority of the youth in the system would be better served in local programs in their communities. The office also developed partnerships with the judiciary. It is really important to engage and embrace judges as they must understand and also desire alternatives to incarceration. They are the front door to the system and must be engaged in any reform changes. When Carrion started there were 1400 kids in the system in New York and now there are 600 kids in the system.

Daniel Chaney, Director, Juvenile Services Division,from Wayne County, MI says that Detroit runs Short Term High Intensity Treatment programs for troubled youth. In the late 1990s Michigan lost control of Detroit’s juvenile justice system and Wayne County stepped in to control the system. There was 2,500 kids a day in the system, Chaney said, the state added 550 private beds but wasn’t enough so Michigan sent the kids to different states. So Wayne County said they would implement a contract based system to help the kids in the winter of 2000. Wayne County asked the fundamental questions “Are the right children coming into the juvenile justice system?” They quickly realized that most kids would be better served by in-home programs. Have not placed any kids out of Michigan since 2000. There has been criminalization of mental illness in teenagers in our country, said Chaney. Over 40 percent of the children that are placed in out of home care are diagnosed with mental illness.

Marc Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice spoke about the sexual abuse scandal in 2007 in juvenile detention systems which brought problems in the juvenile justice system to the forefront. Misdemeanors detention was moved to the county, and Texas has been successful in keeping juveniles in the detention center to a new low. Levin spoke about how the public is more lenient when it comes to juvenile detention and involvement in the criminal justice system and credit has to be given to the public. One of the questions what needs to be answered is how many adults in the criminal justice system where once in the juvenile justice system. The bigger lack of transparency is in the systems that surround the juvenile justice systems, said Levin, including schools and the child welfare systems.

Levin said the alternative schools are gateways to the juvenile justice system and he also encouraged looking at trainings for school guards and teachers. He also spoke about solitary confinement in the juvenile justice system and victim-offender dialogue. He spoke about juvenile re-entry and licenses available for kids coming out of the juvenile lock-ups.

2:00 PM-3:30 PM Panel 3: “What’s Race Got to do With It?” Who’s Locked Up on American’s Juvenile Justice System and Why?”

Panelists include:James Bell, Founder and Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Stephanie Dawkins Davis, Executive Assistant United States Attorney, Eastern District of Michigan, Manuel Criollo, Lead Organizer, Labor/Community Strategy Center, Donyee Bradley, Senior Outreach Worker, Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support, moderated by Ailsa Chang, WYNC NYC.

James Bell spoke about young people of color in conflict with the law. Bell said criminal justice system criminalizes normal children’s behavior and the relevance of the juvenile justice system to the children it serves is not applicable. He asked what we are getting in return for the $220,000 dollars we spend on juvenile lock-up. In order to reduce racial disparity we have to recognize the children’s trauma and give positive alternative. Adults need to help children participate in positive decision making and creative endeavors.These elements are rarely expected or reported in minority communities. Communities of poor minorities are marginalized and the belief is that these communities are incapable to safely raising and properly parenting their young and the states need to intervene in the form of the criminal justice system, says Bell.

Poor folks and folks or color get zero tolerance, if minority children are in trouble in school then the police are called. Bell said 78 % of young people in the juvenile justice system are people of color.

Stephanie Dawkins Davis spoke about the crack/cocaine disparity to explain how minorities are disproportionately in the criminal justice and how now it has become the new normal for these communities.

Ailsa Chang asked Donyee Bradley, if there is a culture of crime in these communities. Bradley says that the constant threat allows youths in this community to feel like okay well lock me up. They also feel like the punishment is nicer than the home environment many of the effected youth are coming from. Bradley said that being locked up and then released to the community that is not prepared for the returning offenders. Bradley spoke about going to youth detention as a “learned behavior” in poor minority communities.

Manuel Criollo spoke about the “School to Prison” pipeline. He spoke that we have to look at schools that have police sweeps in front of their school and students going to juvenile centers and returning to the schools. In Los Angeles, 30% of children suspended are African-American students for infractions as little as not having a pencil, Criollo spoke about the culture of punishment starting early. The real challenge is the over incarceration of youth of color and their under education, he said.

Bell spoke about structural racism and how it is a part of society and there is a notion of using the justice system for certain people inappropriately. The use of the criminal justice system for young people of color is seen as appropriate by society, said Bell. There are young people who suffer abuse and those who will be shielded from harm.

He encourage reporters to report upon the positive items in the juvenile justice system and how we can get positive outcomes out of the system. Bell said he would also like to see reporters hew to probation rules given to to many youth offenders.

Dawkins Davis spoke about the mention of race in newspaper article and when it was relevant or not. Those are things that hit her radar and she believes that is reinforces the notion that African-American males are always the ones committing the crimes.

Every corner turned there is a new rule broken said Criollo and many diversion programs are tied to the criminal justice system.

3:40 PM-5:10 PM Panel 4: Mental Health, Substance Abuse & Brain Development in Juvenile Offenders

Panelists include: Craig Schwalbe, Associate Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work, C. Jama Adams, African-American Studies Department, John Jay College, Gail Garinger, The Child Advocate, Office of the Child Advocate, Massachusetts, moderated by Dr. Jeffrey A. Butts, Director, Center on Research and Evaluation, John Jay College

Schwalbe said there is a desire to find a causal link between mental illness and offending behavior but that science doesn’t support that, but we asking the juvenile justice system to take care of mentally ill children within the system.

Dr. Adams said that we are a can do fix culture and are very attracted to categories but it is very hard to take a person and human being and try and put it into a box. You have to take brain research and mental illness with a grain of salt, reporters have to look at the context in which the behavior is happening. There is tendency at times to predetermine the diagnosis. There is also a lack of integration of the systems that work with the child. Many of the people that work in these disciplines are not trained well, especially if they work with the poor, they are well-meaning, said Adams, but not skilled enough to navigate the issues.

Garinger spoke about how the trauma of early childhood experiences don’t just go away. As a family court judge, Garinger spoke about the circular nature of the juvenile justice system. She would see children of the child welfare system cases go through the juvenile justice system and then later on be the parents of children in the system.

Schwalbe said the debate on whether the criminal justice system should be a mental health provider is still up for discussion.

Butts said he supports the idea of wrap around services but the literature does not support that, he asked Professor Adams what his thoughts were about these services. Adams said that what counts is the support network around the kids as they move through therapeutic programs, and without the unifying thread these programs won’t work. Systems don’t stay around very long cause it revolves around the now and who can move it now. America is interested in the now and there is an excess of good ideas and the interest shifts from one to another. But these kids need a long term stable commitment, said Adams, if they are going to successfully leave the criminal justice system.

Butts said when kids get arrested the criminal justice system holds onto them longer growing the numbers. The research that looks at kids over longest terms shows that when there is contact with juvenile justice system those kids have worse outcome, said Schwalbe, but the contours are not fully known and there seems to be some variation. The prevalence of the mental health varies the deeper you get into the criminal justice system, it is a major concern for these kids but is not the overriding factor.

Delinquency doesn’t have a single path, was caused by a host of factors that started in early childhood, followed them in adolescence, and was also defined by their social and structural supports, said Schwalbe. Risk assessment is limited, he said, there is a violence risk assessment. There is some validity to the assessments, but Schwalbe has not seen risk assessments that is grappling with specific types of violence. It is part of the answer but it is not a magic bullet for sure and won’t help us indentify kids who are at high risk of possibly committing violent crimes.

Butts said treating risk assessment as a tool for prediction is a fantasy. But it is necessary to take bias out of the system, what the tool is predicting is the probability of re-arrest. In New York the risk assessment predicts the probability of future system interaction, not behavior, he said.

Adams said to look at what happens to kids from school to bedtime. We know that good after school programs reduce the likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system, have to look at the ways schools handle suspension, where kids are sent, Adams said we [mental health therapists] can’t tell you how we spot the kids with future violent behavior, but can tell what programs can help keep the children out of the criminal justice system.

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