On January 9, 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice convened its sixth juvenile justice briefing titled Returning Home: Creating Paths for Success in Communities. This briefing is part of a larger Vera series, titled The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Result and Reform.

Watch a video of the event.

Vera’s Director for the Center on Youth Justice (CYJ), Krista Larson, served as moderator and welcomed panelists and Congressional staff during the morning and afternoon panels, and Christine Leonard, director of Vera’s Washington, DC office, provided opening remarks. Panelists included Gabriella Celeste, director of child policy at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, Gregg Croteau, executive director of UTEC, Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and president of the PbS Learning Institute, and The Honorable George Timberlake, Ret., chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Ms. Larson opened the panels by commenting on the juvenile justice system’s current need to shift from costly custodial environments to community based services for a more cost effective, therapeutic, and safe system for young people. She notes that working towards the effective reentry of juveniles back into the community must begin immediately upon entry into the system and follow the juvenile-involved youth throughout his or her stay.

Ms. Celeste discussed the punitive treatment of youth in prison facilities and the lack of resources given to juveniles in custody. She explained that this lack of resources, paired with pre-existing mental health issues, directly affect youth’s development upon reentry into the community. She spoke about the juvenile justice system in Louisiana and Ohio. In Louisiana, Ms. Celeste described the Tallulah youth prison and a traumatized, shaky, and scared youth she worked with. She went on to explain that although the Tallulah youth prison was shut down for deplorable conditions, the situation for that young person and many like him was irreversible, and the damage had already been done. Ms. Celeste discussed important administrative and legislative reforms that grew from critical pressure for change surrounding unconstitutional conditions of confinement of children in the Ohio juvenile justice system. In the 2008 Settlement Agreement with Ohio State Department of Youth Services, Ms. Celeste considered a Set of Guiding Principles born from these litigious reforms to be the most comprehensive principles that built clear commitment programs with continual care for a correctional model at the community level for juvenile youth. She concluded her presentation by highlighting effective reintegration strategies that not only focus on the physical transition from custody to community, but also the developmental and collateral consequences of the transition. In addition, by making these connections/strategies (i.e., access to legal advocated and medical coverage) known, we could significantly lower recidivism rates for juveniles. She urged states to follow Ohio’s set of guiding principles, juvenile programs, and individualized judicial reviews for juveniles in order to employ a practical, fiscal, and effective juvenile justice system that is better for juvenile development and community safety.

Based in Lowell, Massachusetts, Mr. Croteau is the first executive director at UTEC. He started his discussion with a backstory on how he came into this field and the eventual inception and implementation of UTEC as a Workforce Development and Social Enterprise (WDSE). UTEC started from a group of youth wanting a safe haven in a community that was surrounded by gang relations. He stated that the program aims to achieve outcomes for the involved youth in three areas: reduced recidivism, increased educational attainment, and employability. The main focus is on services for “proven risk youth” or “impact youth,” ages 16 to 24 in custodial and community environments. UTEC employs “street walkers” who conduct intensive street outreach to these proven risk youth and work with correctional facilities to engage youth who will be released shortly. The goal is three-fold: a pre- release relationship with youth immediately upon entry into the system, a placement program that employs multiple chance programs where youth can “fail successfully and safely,” and social enterprises focused on mattress recycling, culinary arts, and furniture making. The latter goal allows the center to profit in addition to allowing UTEC to have control of the living wages paid to youth. Mr. Croteau also discussed the importance of UTEC’s commitment to data and its mission to continually measure performance based on the three mentioned outcomes (i.e., recidivism rates, employment, and educational attainability). Based on these performance measures, UTEC has demonstrated success for youth who have been involved in UTEC for 2 to 3 years. In summation, Mr. Croteau stated that clearly there is a benefit analysis in employing community based programs for juveniles’ reentry. He concluded with the idea that we must “take luck out of the equation” when it comes to juvenile’s reentry and allow them to succeed based on their own merit and social capital.

Ned Loughran began his conversation with a background of how the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) came to fruition. Mr. Loughran explained that this non-profit organization formed to improve juvenile correctional services, programs and practices and to provide national leadership development for the individuals responsible for the systems. Furthermore, he explained, that CJCA convenes its members for two Annual Meetings, the Leadership Institute and the New Directors Seminar, for newly appointed youth corrections chief executive officers. Mr. Loughran discussed the major issue of isolation in youth and adult prisons along with the CJCA’s development of a toolkit to combat the various utilities of solitary confinement and other viable punishment alternatives better suited for youth. He also noted that although custody involved youth populations are narrowing, the youth remaining are generally older, heavily gang affiliated, and have untreated mental health issues. For this small population of youth, many current reentry/aftercare programs are ineffective and don’t serve the multifaceted needs of involved youth. In order to combat this, Mr. Loughran stated a need for a comprehensive audit of day-to-day activities within the juvenile justice prison system. He discussed that CJCA developed Performance-based Standards (PbS) as a data-driven improvement model grounded in research that holds juvenile justice facilities and programs to the highest standards of operations, programs and services. PbS helps to combat that need for comprehensive audits of day-to-day functions of youth prisons. He concluded his presentation by reiterating that successful integration of PbS learning model is through training, technical assistance, expert coaching and resources in areas such as developing individualized aftercare programs for each juvenile, support and constant contact with staff during youth’s community reentry, face to face meetings and relationships with staff and youth and appropriate support and services between family, aftercare services and case manager.

The Honorable Judge Timberlake, Ret., explained the responsibilities of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. These responsibilities include the allocation of federal funds for a variety of juvenile justice activities along with ensuring Illinois is in compliance with its core youth prison requirements (i.e. reducing disproportionate number of minorities, separating adult and youth prisoners). Judge Timberlake then discussed the Commissions recent study on youth reentry. This study focused on youth parole and systems of parole populations in adult and youth prisons in order to draw attention to the flawed youth parole system. Among the findings, Judge Timberlake noted that among the juvenile justice youth population, 98% were in custody due to “technical parole violations.”  Judge Timberlake explained this disparity as a systematic flaw in the belief that the adult supervision model, primarily focused on supervision and surveillance, should parallel the youth parole model. But, he pointed out that the adult parole design is not an effective youth model and in fact, the adult model is counterproductive to youth success at onset—with scarce resources and tools (i.e. how to access education or work) to help them succeed out of custody, they will fall into the same routine of pre-entry custody. To build on this finding, he explained the need to measure performance of aftercare versus parole youth designs in order to identify if one or both is better tailored to the individual needs of the juvenile justice-involved youth. Although the final report has not been released, Judge Timberlake speculated that the parole design, with improvements, might be more effective in implementing community collaborations and longstanding relationships/networking abilities for the youth, and therefore, better for juvenile justice-involved youth. He concluded his presentation with two questions that all juvenile justice-involved youth stakeholders should be asking to better the juvenile justice system: what do these kids need, and what risk do these kids pose to the community and society?