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Discussion: Juvenile Justice

posted on April 17, 2008

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How big a problem is juvenile justice in Iowa? What treatments work? And what could make things work better? To address these issues and others we have two guests. Kathy Nesteby is the Iowa Juvenile Justice Coordinator, Gender Specific Task Force. She is based in Des Moines. David Goodson is Executive Director of Social Action, Inc. of Waterloo.

Yeager: First question is how big of a problem, David, do we have with juvenile justice in the state?

Goodson: Well, I think the problem just may be juvenile justice versus juvenile crime. There is a difference. And so are youth being served, is justice being served in dealing with these youngsters in misbehavior? Because I see most of it as really misbehavior versus juvenile crime and that is why we have such high numbers of young juveniles in detention centers and so forth.

Yeager: How do you differentiate between crime and behavior then? Are we just acting up in class? Or are we talking about smoking dope or committing some type of crime? What is your differentiation?

Goodson: Well, you used to have a fight on the playground, it was a fight on the playground and you get suspended for two days, three days, four days. Fight on the playground now you go to juvenile detention, you get involved in the juvenile justice system. So, that is part of how we differentiate between them.

Yeager: When do you think that has changed? What is the timeframe that we've seen that change? And has it been a good change for the better?

Goodson: Oh, I don't think so, I don't think it's been a good change for the better. I think when we started to institute zero tolerances policies and those things of that nature, mandatory sentencing in the adult system so it definitely has not changed for the better but for the worse.

Yeager: Kathy, do you agree with anything that David just said there? Why?

Nesteby: Absolutely. I think part of it too is that the public perceives that there is a problem when there isn't necessarily because the stories that you see covered are going to be the more sensational ones, the ones where a juvenile does commit murder or a serious assault of that type. But if you look at the crimes that they really are committing they aren't serious, they aren't violent for the most part. So, it's a perception issue as well and I couldn't agree more with David about we're responding differently than we have in the past.

Yeager: So, what has seemed to work? What has seemed to have been a recipe for success in trying to treat any of these issues? We're talking more about discussions than consequences for our actions? Or where do we go?

Nesteby: Well, more research is always a place I like to start specifically with girls which is my focus area because girls are a smaller part of the juvenile justice population in the first place. They're only about 30% of the kids being charged. So, the system is set up to serve the needs of boys more just because historically that's who has been there. So, research is always good place to start. And then also taking into acocunt that a fourteen-year-old is not like a forty-year-old, they have not ocmpleted, you know, their brains are still developing. They haven't gotten to the point where logic and reason are those things that come up first. If people would take a moment and think back to when they were in junior high and high school you don't really respond with logic when you're making decisions.

Yeager: Oh, a teenage girl, here she goes, she thinks differently than an adult will. So, what do you have to do differently with girls then than with boys?

Nesteby: Well, girls in the juvenile justice system, if you look at the data that exists they have significant trauma histories. So, if you're dealing with a girl in the juvenile justice system likely you're dealing with a girl who has a history of sexual abuse or physical abuse or some other trauma. You have to address that type of thing. Another big one for girls is maintaining a relationship with them. If a girl feels like an adult cares about her she is much more likely to respond positively to what they are asking her to do. It's not about not holding the kids accountable, you know, you absolutely want to hold them accountable for their behavior but taking into consideration that there are gender differences and developmental differences has to be a part of it.

Yeager: David, we talk with boys, how different is that with how you have to treat and respond with boys?

Goodson: Well, again, we get stuck on this thing of how do we treat youth? Of course, we need life skills development, we need all those kinds of things, opportunity for them to develop themselves and their talents and their gifts and so forth. But we don't spend enough time and enough discussion on what needs to change within the system and how adults need to change in terms of how we respond to these young people. Certainly we need everything we can to service youth, to provide opportunity for them. There is never enough discussion about the professionals in the system and how these numbers, someone is making decisions about who goes home, who goes to jail, who gets suspended, who goes home. Adults are making those decisions and we need to have a serious conversation about the people making those decisions and continue to service young people but we don't spend enough time having that conversation.

Yeager: Because you're going beyond parents and beyond immediate family members. You're talking about the system. Is there more minorities that are in the system and is that reflected with what is really out there or is it just that they get targeted more?

Goodson: Absolutely they get targeted more, there's double standards and differential treatment whether you're talking about education, whether you're talking about juvenile justice, adult justice. Those issues do exist and we need to deal with that. So, again, I'm not minimizing the fact that we need to service people who have bad behavior and make mistakes and need life skills. We need to provide those things. But we should not overlook or minimize the impact of external forces making decisions on behalf of people's lives, juvenile and adult.

Yeager: It takes a village to raise a child so we need everybody involved in this and we're talking about family and we're talking about those on the outside. How can you or I help someone who is in trouble or could use some counseling or a friend. How do you get to that point?

Nesteby: Well, certainly for girls having non-exploitive adults in their lives is really important and adults who don't overreact necessarily to their behaviors, to hold them accountable but not immediately go to criminalizing everything that they're doing. And the zero tolerance policies are actually a very good example.

Yeager: Has that gone too far?

Nesteby: Yeah, and David gave a good example. A fight that used to be handled by detention or suspension now results in a criminal charge. So, adults being a little more reasonable and not being so quick to rush to criminalizing behavior or really important.

Yeager: I hear almost every political season someone is tough on crime, I'm going to be tough on crime. Do we almost need the opposite? We need to have more compassion?

Nesteby: We need to be more reasonable, I think. The accountability has to be there, you know, people can't do whatever they want. But certainly understanding that compassion has to be a part of that as well. So, a reasonable, reasoned response as opposed to I'm going to act like I'm tough on crime while really not helping change much of anything.

Yeager: So, is that something that has worked? What else do you think has worked and what have we done successfully down the road here?

Nesteby: Well, some of the things that we talked about with regard to girls are having girls especially that are further along in the system be in a single gender environment. And your piece on the juvenile home, you know, there is recent legislation where a study came through and a group looked at making recommendations for how to move that to be an all-female facility because although it's the juvenile home and state training school for girls. There are some boys there. And so having a single gender environment, that would be an example of a move in the right direction, providing training for the people, the professionals that work with these kids.

Yeager: Well, David, what have we done? What have we done right so far and what can we build on?

Goodson: I think there's many things that have been done right. I think there's many effective programs. You just start looking at programs across the board, your program, Families First in Waterloo, my program, Passport, there's many programs who do effective work. And so we need to expand those programs, more resources, again, to expand them to continue to provide those kinds of services. But, again, there's some other things that need to happen on the other end of this process. So, there's many things out there that's working, that are going well.

Yeager: What specifically, though, will more money help this out? That's always the biggest, in any type of social service or criminal justice program it's always going to be money. More staffing? Or is it more treatment meetings? One-on-one time?

Goodson: Any time you expand services it's going to cost you more money but it's a matter of priority. Where do I want to spend it? Do I want to spend it on a compassionate end or do I want to spend it on the end locking them up? You're going to spend money regardless, it's just a matter of priorities. Where do we choose to spend it? I choose to spend it on the compassionate side and trying to help people out.

Nesteby: Well, and certainly finding what services are effective because if you can eliminate spending money on ones that aren't doing any good then that frees the money up.

Yeager: That's the study that you're talking about, looking at some of that and freeing up the money, freeing up what is successful. They're almost half way through the legislative session but what do you think could be priorities that you could see that a lawmaker could do to help you on down the road?

Nesteby: I think not just with regards to girls but the entire juvenile justice system, even the adult correction system transition planning is something that is, you know, when you have a child moving from foster care to becoming an adult and having no safety net to help them make that transition that across the board in justice period is something that needs more attention because we do a good job with them while they're here for a short period of time and then we throw them out on their own and they fail and we wonder why.

Yeager: They've got no net or anything like that on the other side, nobody checking in on them. Would you agree David?

Goodson: Well, yeah and what I'd also say is that Governor Chet Culver is doing some tremendous work. When you talk about the adult criminal justice system and the bill I think that is up right now to create a resource center in Des Moines and in Waterloo to continue with this overrepresentation of blacks in prison and also his juvenile justice project, Marvin Spencer, Linda Creighton-Smith from Waterloo, DNC project, that task force. So, the Governor is taking tremendous steps in the right directions to deal with those disparities in the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system. I think that is the direction that we need to be heading.

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