Beyond Bars: Keeping Young People Safe at Home and Out of Youth Prisons

Last week, the National Collaboration for Youth (NCY) hosted Beyond Bars: Keeping Young People Safe at Home and Out of Youth Prisons, a webinar based on its 2016 report that can “serve as a handbook for juvenile justice administrators, legislators, judges, the non-profit community and youth advocates for how to end the practice of youth incarceration, promote public safety and restore a sense of belonging for young people in their homes and neighborhoods.” On February 24, 2017, the NCY held a webinar to further discuss Beyond Bars and to allow listeners to hear experiences from those working in the field of juvenile justice research and policy making. Speakers included: Shaena Fazal, report author and Youth Advocate Programs national policy director; Clinton Lacey, Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services (DYRS); Deborah Hodges, Lucas County Juvenile Court Director; and Hernan Carvente, analyst at the Vera Center on Youth Justice.


The webinar began with a presentation by DYRS Director Clinton Lacey, who works on the Credible Messenger Initiative (CMI), a program which aims to help move from a facility-based juvenile justice system to community-based systems that will keep young people in the community and with their families. Lacey stated that there is a need for the creation of what he called “Youth Development Representatives” who represent a shift in theory about the system and how it should be provided to children. Youth Development Representatives will replace correctional officers in facilities, which will facilitate a mindset that will help young people develop the wherewithal to go back to communities once they are released from care. Lacey stated that when this was implemented in D.C., there was a massive release of young people back into the community. This shift provided a more helpful setting in facilities and focused on community-based alternatives.

D.C. has been on the forefront of reform when it comes to juvenile justice; however, reformers, such as Lacey, want more change. During his presentation, Lacey stated that there needs to be more efforts to move away from large facilities and punitive approaches. Rather, there needs to be a focus on treatment, rehabilitation, evidence-based practices, and other types of treatment modalities to help young people grow out of previous bad behaviors. This is a challenge because even if there is a change in thinking so much of a child’s rehabilitation still goes on inside institutions—being delivered by institutional staff, the “system,” and the state. This continually marginalizes the juvenile’s family and his or her community. Even with an improved approach, it is still being used in isolation.

Lacey continued by stating that this is why community-based rehabilitation needs a bigger push. This is why he has focused the mission of CMI on connecting all young people in the care and custody of DYRS to healthy homes and supportive communities and to provide preventative supports to all youth in D.C. He sees the next frontier of youth facilities to be home-like settings instead of institutional settings. His big push was for juvenile justice agencies to focus on investing in the community and creating and encouraging better juveniles.

Shaena Fazal, the host, Beyond Bars author, and YAP national policy director, then spoke briefly. Fazal focused on the “continuum of care,” which she defined as an “array of meaningful nonresidential community-based programs resources and services.” She described the following:

Core Components of a Continuum of Care

  • Support for families with complex needs;
  • Behavioral health and holistic victim services;
  • Substance use /abuse programs;
  • Pathways for future economic opportunities;
  • Access to education;
  • Safe place and opportunities;
  • Restorative justice (RJ); and
  • Mobile crisis intervention programs.

Key Strategies to Success

  • Wraparound planning process—holistic process;
  • Credible messengers;
  • Family advocacy;
  • Flexibility fund for extraordinary needs; and
  • Crisis and safety planning.

Deborah Hodges continued the discussion on the continuum of care by speaking about her experience in implementing this strategy as the Director of the Lucas County Juvenile Court. Hodges explained that in Lucas County, the continuum of care was implemented to decrease detention and incarceration beginning in 2000 by building detention alternatives for youths. This was done by using community-based practices. The county soon discovered that incarceration was not the place for the kids and that there needed to be a push to help to divert low-level offenders rather than locking them up. To do this, she and her staff had to look for gaps in care and fill them.

Once changes were made by 2013, three thousand youths had been successfully diverted. There were also dramatic reductions in school-based charges and a reduction of disproportionate minority contact. Hodges explained that her institution saw such rapid, effective change as a result of a restructured staff and the fact that the detention center was transformed into an assessment center.

As of 2009, Lucas County experienced a 95 percent drop in arrested African-American youth. This happened because of changes in the system having to do with dispositional decision-making, racial and ethnic equity, probation, community-based services, family engagement (having family navigators to guide families through the system), and collaboration. They created programs that were strength based and resilient oriented that promoted positive interactions with youth and focused on learning while doing. They still held youth accountable but by investing in kids they believed they were making kids better and addressing the real issues that brought youths to crime.

In addressing the high-risk youth in the community, the county determined that it was not necessary to file probation violations in every instance. Instead, there was a focus on the fact that incarceration is not the only path to rehabilitation. Hodges explained that juveniles need access to opportunities, just like other non-offender juveniles need. The goal is to address behaviors and find solutions. When these goals could not be achieved, starting over and recuperating proved more successful than simply punishing. In order to obtain success, repetition is required. Hodges stated that this process should be done with most juveniles; however, she acknowledged at there are some juvenile offenders who pose a real threat to the community and may not be successful in this sort of program. Nonetheless, she considers this group to be the exception, not the rule.

How can Lucas County’s success be replicated? Hodges suggested that staff training is the most vital step to achieving effective results. Based on emerging research, staff input and participation and the role of middle managers are critical. A staff member has to be able to communicate why certain processes and procedures are needed. For a successful program, the mindset has to change and there must be a facilitator to push others to celebrate success. Each and every small change makes a difference in the long term.

Finally, the webinar concluded with Hernan Carvente, an analyst at the Vera Center on Youth Justice, in New York, where he advocates for juvenile justice reform based on his own experiences in the system. Carvente is the son of two undocumented parents who grew up in Queens. Growing up, Carvente witnessed and experienced domestic violence and substance abuse in his own household. His family situation contributed greatly to his sense of identity, and by the age of 13, he had joined a gang. By age eight, he begun using alcohol and at age 13, he was abusing drugs. As a child, Carvente was self-admittedly aggressive and violent.

At age 15, he committed attempted murder and was incarcerated in a juvenile facility. Because of New York law, he was not convicted as an adult—the crime was committed just two days before his 16th birthday. While incarcerated, Carvente was in a chronic state of hyper vigilance due to the constant riots and violence. He realized early on that he had to try to keep himself safe.

In his juvenile facility, there was no secondary education—only a GED program. He was offered no real work force development. Nonetheless, he completed his GED and participated in a college program and earned 56 credits. He described this as the “only good thing about the facility he was at.” Even with this achievement, Carvente did not know what to expect once he returned to his family and his community. He had a young daughter and was rarely able to see her or other members of his family. With the facility being over two hours away from his family’s home, desperately needed visits were sporadic.

Upon release, Carvente used his childhood experiences as inspiration to help with youth engagement—involving himself in programs for youth in planning and in making decisions that affect themselves and others (ACT for Youth Center of Excellence, 2017) youth-adult partnerships. His program focuses on how engagement can be achieved from creativity.

While each speaker came from diverse backgrounds, all had one thing in common: they wanted to see a change in the system. All want to allow juveniles to have more choices in rehabilitation and less punitive consequences. From programs that are successful, to programs that are being creating, to personal experiences—change is the number one focus. Better Bars aims for happier, healthier, safer children by utilizing alternatives to incarceration.

Watch the webinar and view the PowerPoint presentation.