Jail Breaker

Jail Breaker
06 October 2010

“I take a forensic approach,” explains Bart Lubow. “Not like in the TV show CSI. But carefully looking at processes to see where they could lead to a better result for offender and victim.”

It is this forensic approach that Lubow has brought to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JADI), an emerging evidence-based program] being implemented in over half of US states with the aim of reducing the number of young people in detention.

For the last 19 of its 20 year existence, JDAI has been in the custody of Lubow in his role as Director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

For the last 19 of its 20 year existence, Lubow has been director of JADI, while also director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Lubow has devoted most of his professional life to finding alternative ways to reduce reliance on incarceration as a means for dealing with criminal behavior.

“I cannot understand why people would think that locking up most criminals would lead to greater public safety, or would help the offender,” he tells Prevention Action. “Every time I am looking for a less punitive disposition.”

His alternative is to widen the options and the information available to those who make the critical decision whether or not to lock up an offender: “The approach I’ve taken throughout my career has been to identify steps in the court or correctional processes that could be modified to reduce how many people are locked up. At key court decision points – by, for example, providing different or better information, combined with more options – [you can] enable judges or probation officers to make better choices than simply locking folks up all the time.”

Lubow is clear about the importance of what he terms “better decision-making opportunities” for reducing incarceration rates.

“In our country, there’s certainly scant evidence that mass incarceration produces good public safety outcomes, but evidently that fact is insufficient to change reliance on confinement,” he argues. “However, providing better decision-making opportunities, and tracking the results of those decisions, does seem to alter incarceration patterns significantly.”

Lubow’s stance has not always made him popular. In the 1980s, as Director of Alternatives to Incarceration in New York State, he worked to keep adults out of jail.

“There were plenty of people even then who disliked me a lot for what we were doing, especially creating alternatives to the traditional bureaucracy,” he suggests.

“But I learned a lot. I learned, most importantly, not to confuse program innovation with system reform. We created dozens of programs during these years. Lots of alternatives to prison. But we lost the policy battle. Mario Cuomo [the then Governor of New York state] built more prison beds than all the other governors before him.

“Program innovation is important. But system reform has a critical role also in improving human well-being.”

Lubow’s expertise was a perfect match for Doug Nelson when, in the early nineties, Nelson was building the Annie E. Casey Foundation into the national force it has become today.

In the early stages of its development, the foundation was drawn into mediating local problems, including a federal law suit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, involving the conditions of confinement in a horribly crowded local detention facility. The foundation funded research that highlighted the ways in which young people were unnecessarily or inappropriately detained. It also helped the site establish both new decision-making tools, including a detention-screening tool, based upon the risk of reoffending, to facilitate admissions decisions, and new options for certain youth, like home supervision. As a result of these changes, detention use was reduced by more than 50 percent without any negative impact on public safety.

It became apparent to Nelson that since detention was as, as a federal judge once wrote, “the hidden closet of juvenile justice”, little-studied and hardly reformed, it could provide a unique opportunity for Casey to stimulate change in how the country responded to delinquent behavior.

As Lubow puts it, “Doug Nelson understood that detention use was predictive of the effectiveness of juvenile justice generally. Hasty decisions to take kids away from home, disrupt their schooling or work, breaking up relationships, and placing them in dangerous facilities, was a pretty weak approach … [and] does not indicate either a regard for reducing crime or for reforming anti-social behavior.”

The first forays into the work were not without challenges. Reducing the use of custody during an era in which the US quadrupled its incarceration rate, and when delinquents were being referred to as “super-predators”, was not a simple proposition.

But Lubow struck upon a vital ingredient that has guided the JDAI journey. “Most people involved in juvenile justice reform in this field want to change kids’ behavior. And there is surely a place for that. But JDAI is based upon changing adult behavior. It’s about getting adults to make smarter decisions, with more options, in more timely ways. It’s about changing the policies, practices and programs that collectively define the system.

“When we talk about alternatives to detention, we don’t just mean programs in the community. We mean alternative policies and practices that generally have a great impact on who is detained and for how long. The people who work in, and manage this system, find these alternative are better for their agencies, better for the victims of crime, better for the people who pay their wages and better for making young offenders productive citizens.”

There have been stops and starts along the way, but ultimately the results have been acknowledged nationally. Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and a leading advocate for evidence-based programs while serving in the federal government in the 1990s, praises the impact of JDAI.

“JDAI provided a counterbalance to the simplistic thinking and anecdotal advocacy for get-tough approaches based on the fear that kids were more dangerous than they used to be”, he says. “It has made a critically important contribution to changing the way many local justice officials and community members view the role and proper operation of the juvenile justice system.”

For Lubow, apart from the results reported in yesterday’s edition of Prevention Action, the aspect of his work in which he takes most pride is what JDAI has demonstrated about system reform:

“It used to be thought that systems could be reformed by a bit of re-structuring, by a change of leadership, or by a knee-jerk reaction after a scandal or crisis. We have learned that changing the status quo requires a different kind of system reform. It needs an explicit, consistent and sustained stimulus.”

This approach is what drew Lubow’s work to the attention of Prevention Action. The focus may be changing adult behavior. The goal may be preventing the use of a damaging intervention and not the emergence of an impairment to health or development. But the rigor, and attention to fidelity, as reported in tomorrow’s edition of Prevention Action, show many similarities between the JDAI and the programs routinely reported in these pages.




Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative

It is a product of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. There is evidence that JDAI lowers the use of juvenile detention, lowers serious crime and reduces taxpayer investment in youth justice.

Bart Lubow

Prior to his time at the Casey Foundation, Lubow was Director of Alternatives to Incarceration in New York State.

Shay Bilchik

During the 1990s Bilchik headed up the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was a strong advocate for greater use of evidence based programs. Bilchik has also served as President of the Child Welfare League of America.

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