Q&A with Director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Youth Justice
Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Annie Salsich, the Director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Youth Justice, a nonprofit center for justice policy research and practice. The Center on Youth Justice (CYJ) works with government to make juvenile justice systems equitable in policy and practice for youth, families, and communities.
Annie’s policy reform work at Vera is inspired and informed by her many years spent working directly with kids as a case manager for pregnant and parenting teens and a program director at a Boys & Girls club. She was struck by how kids were being shuttled into the justice system, the many disparities by class, race, and ethnicity, and the not-so-ideal policies dictating how she could work with these young people. Her interest in the policy side— particularly how policies are designed and how they can be changed to allow people on the ground to do their work more effectively—brought her to Vera, where she has worked for 10-plus years on policy reform.
Keep reading for our Q&A with Annie on the obstacles currently facing the juvenile justice system, exciting, upcoming research that will change the game, and how she envisions the JJ system in 10 years…
Juvenile-in-Justice: What is the Center on Youth Justice’s vision for improved outcomes for disadvantaged children and families? What work have you done to achieve that result?
Annie Salsich: Our mission is to promote the wellbeing and safety of youth, families, and communities by working with government to make juvenile justice systems equitable and humane in policy and practice. In particular, we aim to reduce bias in juvenile justice systems, expand the use of community-based services, and safely divert youth who may be more effectively served by other resources. We work at all points, including, but not limited to, early pathways into the juvenile justice system (with a focus on school discipline and safety practices as well as status offender systems), detention, and placement.
Status offenders are children who haven’t been charged with a crime but are often pulled into the juvenile justice system because they have been acting out in ways that, because of their age, put them at risk—behaviors such as chronic truancy, running away, and “ungovernability”—actions that encompass a wide spectrum of adolescent behavior. For the past 15 years, we have focused on this point of the system in New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, and most recently in Louisiana and Washington State as a part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative—all with the focus of helping localities shift the paradigm away from court involvement and toward community-based, family-focused social service interventions.
In addition, we do a good deal of work in detention (equivalent to jail in the adult context), especially in New York State. Much of our work in this area has drawn heavily upon lessons from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).
We also focus our attention beyond detention, on deep-end commitment (commonly referred to as placement—equivalent to prison in the adult system). In New York and other jurisdictions, we work to help local officials and policymakers rethink the way that they decide who goes into placement, as well as the conditions, treatments, and approaches taken by facilities, in custody, and upon community reentry.
While the thrust of our work in the area of detention and placement has been to support government entities and practitioners to safely reduce the use of incarceration, our focus further upstream has been to keep children out of the court system as much as possible, and rely—when it is safe and feasible—more on social services responses. The goal is to keep the response at home, in the community, with the family.
JinJ: What is the most recent research being produced by your organization?
AS: Currently, we are conducting a large-scale mixed-methods study looking at how young people who live in highly policed neighborhoods experience the New York City Police Department’s stop, question, and frisk policy. We are using an approach that hasn’t been used before in examining this particular practice—looking at the way the policy and practice is affecting young people (largely, young people of color) and families in these neighborhoods. Do residents say they are safer because of the heavy police presence, or do they say they are more vulnerable to unjustified stops? Do they regard police conduct during stop-and-frisk interactions as respectful and fair, or do they claim their rights are being violated? We hope that this study will broaden the recent conversations and uncover ways that neighborhood residents and police can work together to keep neighborhoods safe.
JinJ: What do you feel are the most significant obstacles impeding juvenile justice system reform today?
AS: There is an increasing amount of good information about effective and promising approaches in juvenile justice that is available to people who want to change their systems. The big challenge is how do you translate that information into the nuts and bolts of on-the-ground practices? Take the well-known Missouri model, for example. Close to every state is aware—through reports, articles, presentations, and site visits—of the model’s core approach and its success in promoting positive outcomes for youth in custody. Many states have expressed at least some level of interest in adopting it. However, it is often difficult for jurisdictions to know how to go about moving a system from an institutional model to a regionalized, therapeutic system like Missouri’s. In making big changes like this and others, lawmakers and administrators need support and assistance in the implementation process.
Another obstacle is that juvenile justice reform efforts struggle with defining what the parameters of the juvenile justice system should be. On one hand, you have a vulnerable population. On the other hand, you have practitioners with a tendency to analyze every aspect of these kids’ lives. It’s an issue of boundaries. For example: a child who has had multiple misdemeanors over the past couple of years and social service mental health needs but doesn’t pose a risk to public safety comes before a judge. In part, due to a lack of available services prior to justice system involvement and a lack of other alternatives available in the community, the judge commits the child. Thus, this child is locked up for reasons that aren’t about justice. The system needs to define what it does and doesn’t have power over. This is an important, nuanced conversation.
JinJ: How do you envision these parameters being mandated?
AS: This is absolutely something every state and locality needs to have a conversation about. The work we do at Vera is very locally informed (driven by the needs and infrastructure of each jurisdiction). So I think to set these parameters it needs to be locally driven, with a focus on what population you are serving, what their needs are, and what the community wants to use its juvenile justice system for.
JinJ: Tell me about some of the research your center is putting out right now and why it’s important:
AS: In a recent report, we documented the process we took to help New York City develop an empirically-based juvenile detention risk-assessment instrument to inform judicial decisions to detain or release young people pending a court sentence. One of the most interesting and somewhat controversial findings of the research we conducted as part of this process was that the seriousness of the alleged offense was not correlated, or associated, with a young person’s risk of re-arrest or failure to appear in court prior to sentencing. In terms of making decisions regarding detention, this finding is contrary to what many people assume to be true.
JinJ: How are lay people responding to data? (Particularly the data that may be more contrary to popular belief.)
AS: The juvenile justice field is relying much more on data and research to inform and drive policy analysis and planning, which is a powerful change. There still is a need for more data, but it is so much more often part of the conversation than it was several years ago. This is a very important shift, in part heightened by the fact that resources are tight right now. People want to know that what they are spending their money on is effective.
JinJ: What is coming up at Vera that you are excited about?
AS: We recently received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop and launch an online resource center to help policymakers and practitioners rethink their approach for responding to status offenders and their families. This site will be a one-stop shop of information that focuses on the process of implementing reform, including what data is needed to assess the current system and how that information can be used to identify policy and practice changes. As part of this work, we plan to develop interactive tools, webinars, and podcasts that will highlight lessons learned through the Models for Change Initiative and by a number of other jurisdictions across the country.
JinJ: Who will the resource center be geared towards?
AS: We envision that the site will be most helpful to practitioners and policymakers tasked with changing policy on the ground, but we hope its reach will extend far beyond that as well. Ideally, we’d also want the broader public to understand the many different paths that draw these youth into the juvenile justice system, which is often ill-equipped to address their underlying problems. Primarily, though, it will focus on providing guidance for putting policy reform into practice. Ultimately, we believe that changing on-the-ground practices—in a way that has been done in many jurisdictions to date and can and should be done in many more—could have a ripple effect that may result in more wide-scale efforts across the country.
JinJ: How do you envision the juvenile justice system in 10 years?
AS: That’s a good—hard—question. Ideally… in 10 years…there would be far fewer kids involved in the system—the reach of the justice system would be far narrower. In part because more resources are going to families and communities prior to crises escalating and kids offending. AND that the decisions about who enters that system and who enters various parts of system are truly objective and fair, that all kids are given the same opportunity to succeed and not enter the system.