Keeping Kids Outside the System

Alternatives to juvenile detention are cheaper and more effective.


Rashad never took his eyes off his mother. While his public defender questioned him, Rashad clenched and unclenched his hands, answering in staccato bursts, his large brown eyes imploring or challenging his mother, who returned his stare from the front row of the courtroom. No, he hadn't pushed his mother into the coffee table. No, he hadn't tried to strangle her. Yes, he tried to tell his story to the police. Yes, he knew why his mother called the police and why she claimed he had pushed her first. She wanted him arrested. She had called the police before. According to her, he was 14, "good for nothing," and headed for prison like his father.

It's bad enough that a judge has to decide who is telling the truth in domestic violence cases like this. Worse, even if found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence, Rashad would return home with his mother. Imagine the dinner table conversation that night.

A cheaper and more effective approach than arresting Rashad would have been referring him to Family Resources, a Pinellas County, Florida, shelter for runaway and homeless youth that also provides family counseling and an alternative respite from violent domestic disputes. Family Resources is one of 233 agencies across the country that belong to the National Network for Youth, which provides services to kids and families while keeping the kids out of the juvenile justice system. In a 2001 study, Florida TaxWatch, a fiscal watchdog group based in Tallahassee, found that organizations such as Family Resources save Florida taxpayers millions of dollars each year by diverting youth from the juvenile justice and dependency-court systems. States that are struggling to balance their budgets should look to juvenile justice alternatives like these, which achieve better results at a lower cost.

While researching a book about my nine years of service as a juvenile judge in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area of Florida, I met dedicated people all over the country who have had success deterring juveniles from crime. I reviewed the data. I found that diverting kids from criminal careers could save billions of dollars a year in prison costs while helping to create law-abiding, productive citizens, thus enhancing public safety. Here are a few evidence-based programs that work:

Civil citations for first-time offenders. Wansley Walters earned worldwide recognition as director of Miami-Dade County's juvenile services division by working with law enforcement and social service agencies to help nonviolent first-time juvenile offenders avoid arrest. Instead they are given a civil citation and assigned to a program that matches their needs, such as drug counseling or shoplifting prevention. Without an arrest record, it is much easier to get a job, obtain a scholarship, or enter military service. Walters diverted thousands of kids in Miami, saving taxpayers millions of dollars that otherwise would have been spent on prosecuting and detaining them. From 1998 to 2008, arrests fell by 46 percent, re-arrests by 80 percent. 

Redirection. Administered by Evidence-Based Associates, a project management company in Summerville, South Carolina, Redirection focuses on more serious juvenile offenders, those who are not eligible for civil citations. By providing in-home family therapy tailored to the needs of the youth and his family, Redirection seeks to prevent institutional commitment. In four years of operation in Florida, Redirection saved the state $36.4 million in juvenile commitment costs while "significantly" lowering recidivism, according to the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Why spend $45,000 a year committing a kid, sometimes just to give the family a much-needed break, when we can order the youth and family to cooperate with much less expensive in-home therapy that produces results?

Parenting with Love and Limits. This nationwide re-entry program, designed by Scott P. Sells, an associate professor of social work at Savannah State University, is aimed at preparing juvenile offenders and their families for the transition from a residential commitment program back to home. In Florida, where Parenting with Love and Limits (PLL) began as a re-entry program in the Tampa Bay area, PLL counselors engage the family in weekly "wound-healing" sessions while the youth is in a secure, locked-down, highly structured setting. PLL counselors continue to work with the family for weeks after the youth's return home to ease the transition.

While early results with PLL in Florida are promising, Indiana's PLL statistics, compiled by the Justice Research Center in Tallahassee under contract with PLL, are compelling. The one-year recidivism rate for the 189 Indiana youth served by PLL was just 16 percent, less than half the rate reported by the U.S. Justice Department based on data from eight states.

In March, acknowledging the money-saving potential of alternatives to detention, Florida Gov. Rick Scott took $10 million from juvenile correctional facilities and redistributed it to prevention, intervention, and diversion programs. Reform advocates were also encouraged by the Republican governor's choice of diversion champion Wansley Walters to head the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. If Scott, a Tea Party favorite who ran on a platform of fiscal restraint, understands the value of prevention, so should other governors and state legislators in these strained fiscal times. 

Irene Sullivan (irenesullivan36@tampabay.rr.com), a recently retired Florida juvenile court judge, is the author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insights Into Juvenile Justice (Kaplan Publishing). Her website is raisedbythecourts.org.