Juvenile justice reform in Neb. has long been a hot topic of debate, study and legislation.
A labyrinth of statutes, jurisdictions, agencies and rules makes navigating the system difficult. Youth committing even minor offenses can face detention, probation or diversion depending on who they intersect with in the system. Child welfare professionals seek rehabilitation. Prosecutors push accountability.
Different philosophies, policies and competing interests can lead to unnecessary confinement, Lives get disrupted. Slow case processing can keep kids in an-in-system limbo awaiting adjudication.
A major Douglas County juvenile justice reform initiative, Operation Youth Success, uses a collective impact model to try and improve system coordination and communication for desired better youth outcomes. Its stakeholder players span law enforcement officials and judges to educators and service providers.
“A work group is working specifically trying to cut times kids are detained and the time it takes cases to get through court,” said OYS director Janee Pannkuk.
“We’re collecting data on where are those bottlenecks.”
Extenuating circumstances aren’t always acknowledged.
“There’s so many things that influence why a kid makes a decision,” Pannkuk said. “We’ve had kids shoplift because they needed hygiene products or candy bars, so it was more a child welfare issue – but then it became a criminal justice issue. For it really to be effective it needs to work at an individual level. We’re talking about a macro system trying to operate at a micro level. A lot of times big systems don’t respond well to the individual piece.”
“It’s so easy for others to judge families,” Douglas County Youth Center Manager of Administrative Services Mark LeFlore said. “I’m not saying families aren’t responsible but there’s shared responsibility. You just can’t put it all on the family. Families in a lot of cases are doing their best and they need to be recognized for their efforts, not minimized.”
“A youth makes a mistake and it has a ripple effect on families. In some cases that individual helps support the family by working or is directly responsible for younger siblings while the parent works. With that individual out of the house, it changes the dynamics and families struggle with those changes.”
When youth are detained without cause, said UNO Justice Center director Roger Spohn, “you’re probably going to make this kid worse rather than better.”
If that youth is an African-American male in Douglas County, then his contact with the system is on average longer and harsher than for his white counterparts.
Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) plagues the state’s juvenile justice system.
“If you’re on an unlawful absence warrant or if you’re a runaway you’re going to stay twice as long in detention as a non-minority for the same charge,” LeFlore said.
“It’s not working equally or equitably for all of our different youth,” Voices for Children in Nebraska analyst Juliet Summers said. “The best example of that is youth in detention. We’ve cut our detention numbers statewide almost in half but the disproportionality has gone dramatically up. We need to figure out what we’re doing systemically that is not supporting particular groups of youth in receiving the same positive outcomes.”
LeFlore agrees bias persists.
“We’re going to have to change the conversation, do a better job understanding how this is occurring and have some coming together of those involved in the decision-making process to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently?'”
“We’re finding we need to dig a lot deeper, especially when it comes to Disproportionate Minority Contact,” Pannkuk said. “We have to have the data to make sure it’s not assumptions or anecdotes but facts.”
Spohn said while OYS “has had some real wins – reducing arrests in Omaha schools and bringing good training to School Resource Officers” – they’ve had less success with DMC.
Observers applaud the recent hire of A’Jamal Byndon as Douglas County’s first DMC Coordinator.
“That’s a big accomplishment,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, who with LeFlore co-chairs the DMC committee for Operation Youth Success.
But DMC issues extend statewide, said Juvenile Justice Institute director Anne Hobbs.
“Different parts of the state have different battles they’re fighting. In Douglas County, it’s African-American youth disadvantaged, but in other parts of the state it’s Native American youth and Hispanic youth.”
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.
“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.