A training on racial and ethnic disparities was organized jointly by the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the Massachusetts Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Leadership Forum Training Committee.

Photo by Josh Dankoff

The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

The state asks what resources, opportunities, services or supports do teens need in order to be able to behave better?

Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.

Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.

What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.

“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”

Attorney Joshua Dohan believes in the idea of "positive youth development" to help juveniles work toward a brighter future. Courtesy of Joshua Dohan

A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.

For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.

“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”

Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.

“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”

Through an educational partnership, the Boston Department of Youth Services invites Boston Public Library authors to connect to youth using books that reflect their lived experiences. Here, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, authors of "All American Boy," visit a DYS facility. Courtesy of Department of Youth Services

At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.

Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.

Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.

“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”

Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”

In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)

Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.

And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”

In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.

Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.

MORE: When Traditional Disciplinary Actions Don’t Work, Restorative Justice Can Bring About the Healing Process

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.