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Volume 6, Issue 1 • Spring 2017

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Facility Operations and Juvenile Recidivism

Neighborhood Risks and Resources Correlated With Successful
Reentry of Youth Returning from Massachusetts Detention Centers

Girls Leaving Detention: Perceptions of Transition to Home After
Incarceration

An Innovative Use of Conjoint Analysis to Understand
Decision-Making by Juvenile Probation Officers

“I’d Prefer an Applicant Who Doesn’t Have a Delinquency History”:
Delinquents in the Labor Market

Gender Comparisons in the Processes and Outcomes of Functional
Family Therapy

Achieving Juvenile Justice Reforms Through Decision-Making Structures: The Case of Georgia

The Benefits of Community and Juvenile Justice Involvement in
Organizational Research

Achieving Juvenile Justice Reforms Through Decision-Making Structures: The Case of Georgia

Jesse Russell, Big Picture Research and Consulting; Erin Manske, National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Erin Manske, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 426 S. Yellowstone Drive, Madison, WI 53719. E-mail: emanske@nccdglobal.org

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to acknowledge Commissioner Avery Niles, Deputy Commissioner Joe Vignati, and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice for their leadership in and their support of this work. The authors would also like to thank the Annie E. Casey Foundation for their support and partnership in this effort. Katie Nachman and Stella Furlano also provided important assistance in writing this article.

Keywords: adjudication, confinement, judicial disposition, juvenile, juvenile court process

Abstract

In 2013, the state of Georgia passed revisions to its juvenile code. These revisions committed Georgia to juvenile justice reform. Particular emphasis was placed on incentivizing evidence-based practices and on supporting valid and reliable decision-making. A key component was the development and implementation of evidence-based decision-support tools. The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice partnered with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) to develop and implement a set of decision-making supports. The newly implemented assessments that resulted from this process help judges determine the risk levels of youth, help inform court decisions regarding the best dispositional options for youth, help the courts place youth in the least restrictive environments necessary to ensure public safety, and inform service planning. The current analysis considers whether these practice and policy changes have led to changes in outcomes. Three decision points are considered: detentions, adjudications, and dispositions to out-of-home placements. The qualitative and quantitative evidence presented suggests that detentions, adjudications, and dispositions to out-of-home placements have decreased, and that there has been no upward change in the number of referrals from law enforcement, despite the increased numbers of youth in the community.

Introduction

The U.S. juvenile court and justice system has stood for reform and system improvement from its start. First formalized in Illinois in 1899, juvenile court evolved from a variety of systems used to handle juvenile justice and child welfare matters during the nineteenth century and earlier (Fox, 1996). During the same period, social norms in the United States were shifting, driven by large waves of immigration and urbanization. Social activists, as well as lawmakers and other officials, began to theorize that criminality was a result of the social environment and often a survival mechanism. They suggested that if youth were taught other skills in prison, they would be more likely to make meaningful contributions to society upon their release. This concept was then applied at the system level, leading to the inception of the juvenile court. Early juvenile courts were based on the idea that treating young people involved in criminal activity as if they were adults was not the best way to respond. Rather than focus on the punitive aspects of intervention, the concept of juvenile court took into consideration the legal doctrine of parens patriae—that these youth were actually in need of protection and an opportunity to develop more socially productive life skills. The juvenile court was not established to hold children accountable, but rather to consider the best interests of children and to rehabilitate them.

Much of the initial efforts of the juvenile court went toward offering these rehabilitative treatments in noninstitutional settings. Because the model was one of positive intervention rather than punitive accountability, the deprivation of individual liberty was not the focus. As Charles L. Chute, the first president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (then named the National Probation Association), stated in 1933, “Probation care under an officer of the requisite ability, personality and character, is far safer and more effective than institutionalization, and incidentally it costs the state less than one-tenth as much per child. . . . Too often we have sent up, as these children call it, neglected, problem children, and they have come out real delinquents” (Chute, 1933, p. 750). Nearly a century ago, Chute was suggesting that community-based interventions were more effective, less costly, and more likely to lead to safer communities.

In 1846, Horace Mann made much the same point: “The courts and the ministers of justice sit by until the petty delinquencies of youth glare out in the enormities of adult crime” (Mann, 1846, p. 143). Mann further declared, “[A]re there not moral means for the renovation of mankind? Are there not resources whose vastness and richness have not yet been explored?” (p. 142). Again, the argument was that there is an opportunity for positive interventions that will lead to more successful young people and safer communities.

Since the time of Horace Mann—for the past 170 years—the United States has been challenged to respond to this question: How can we as a nation best take advantage of this opportunity to use our resources to keep our communities safer through positive interventions? During that time, juvenile justice in the United States has variously shifted primacy among three different and simultaneous goals: (a) punitive accountability, (b) positive rehabilitation, and (c) sustainable community safety. Much of the struggle has been to find a path to concurrently maximize all three goals. As a National Research Council (2013) report concluded, numerous states and local jurisdictions have made substantial progress on the task. The report suggests that jurisdictions can maximize both positive rehabilitation and community safety if they are willing to mostly let go of punitive accountability.

Although activists in past centuries were positive that there were opportunities for effective treatment, rehabilitation, and positive intervention, the question of “what works” has been prominent in recent decades. Starting in the early 1960s, there was rising skepticism about the juvenile justice system’s ability to fulfill its promises. The famous conclusion to a review of interventions to reduce recidivism was that rehabilitative efforts produced no observable effect on it (Martinson, 1974). Many found this conclusion salient, and it became known as “nothing works.” The “nothing works” thesis was echoed by researchers as recently as Cullen and Gendreau (1989).

Censures of the juvenile justice system were also delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kent v. United States (1966) and In re Gault (1967). The effects of these rulings pushed the evolution of more modern juvenile justice statutes that reflected a different philosophy. The emphasis shifted from entrusting maximum power and discretion to system officials to determine outcomes for individual youth, to limiting and controlling those powers. The Supreme Court–mandated safeguarding of juvenile due process rights made lawyers a necessity in juvenile court to enforce these rights (both as advocates and as judges), just as in the adult system. With the increased presence of lawyers, the system became even more driven by law and less driven by treatment. The juvenile justice field shifted away from intervention models that used individualized rehabilitation plans to reduce future system involvement (Dawson, 1990). The “nothing works” theory, which raised doubts about the effectiveness of rehabilitative practices, worked in combination with the reforms in court procedure to promote the rise of more punitive practices focusing on offense-based sentencing.

More recently, the research literature has found that some programs and interventions can be effective for particular groups of juvenile justice system–involved young people. Since the late 1990s, efforts such as the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Comprehensive Strategies for Juvenile Offenders and the Model Programs Guide, studies of evidence-based practices, and a push for program evaluation, have led to a more nuanced understanding of what works, when, and for whom in juvenile justice.

Intervention effectiveness can be found within particular limits. Empirical research findings generally suggest the following: (a) Services are most effective when they address needs pertaining to the offending and arrest; (b) program effectiveness is attenuated for those who are incarcerated; and (c) correctional sanctions and placement in secure settings can increase the likelihood of rearrest or reoffending.

Further, the effectiveness of intervention turns on appropriately targeting services to those most at risk of future juvenile justice system involvement. The research literature supports the conclusion that interventions are most effective when applied only to the youth at highest risk of rearrest or reoffending. The same programs can cause negative effects when applied to youth at lower risk levels (Lipsey, 1992, 2009). Low-risk system-involved youth can suffer negative consequences from over-intervention.

Georgia

Justice reform in Georgia was initiated in the legislature by creating the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform in 2011. In 2012, Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order to expand the focus of the Special Council to include the juvenile justice system. The Special Council received intensive technical assistance from the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2013a, 2013b). With that guidance, the Special Council issued recommendations to reduce recidivism by investing in evidence-based programs and practices. It also recommended requiring data collection and performance-based contracting and altered the way certain offenses were categorized. A bill containing most of the recommendations passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Deal on May 2, 2013. The state also appropriated $5 million in fiscal year 2013 to fund an incentive grant program (Georgia’s 2013 Juvenile Justice Reform) to encourage the counties to embrace the changes.

The goals of reform outlined by the Special Council were specifically identified as: (a) a reduction in the number of youth housed in Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) secure facilities who were at lower risk to reoffend; (b) a decrease in the out-of-home juvenile population committed to DJJ; and (c) a decline in Georgia’s juvenile recidivism rate as youth began to be assessed using new tools designed to measure risk and needs for each youth (Georgia Children’s Cabinet, 2016).

Of particular interest to the current analysis was the Special Council’s focus on valid assessment as a way of approaching these goals. The Special Council highlighted a lack of validation and inconsistent use of risk and needs assessment tools in juvenile justice practice in Georgia. The Special Council reported that many young people who had been adjudicated on low-level offenses—and who were unlikely to be rearrested—were being sent to secure out-of-home placements, with little benefit for public safety and at great cost. The Special Council recommended the use of empirically validated assessment tools at key decision points to guide out-of-home placement decisions. In addition, the Special Council suggested that a set of standardized, structured decision-making tools would help DJJ accurately assess risk, provide a basis for disposition recommendations made to the court, inform judges’ disposition decisions, help the courts place youth in the least restrictive environments necessary to ensure public safety, and inform service planning (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2014).

The work of the Special Council, with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, laid the foundation for the interventions described here.

Decision-Making and Tools

The efficacy of decision-making and assessment tools can be understood in the context of the hazards inherent in human decision-making. Empirical research literature on the potential hazards of decision-making is robust. In particular, recent research on the role of heuristics and cognitive biases has outlined several ways individual and group rationality can be limited.

The phenomenon of heuristics explains how the brain handles information overload by developing simple and efficient rules to rapidly make decisions, form judgments, and resolve issues, especially when faced with challenges or incomplete information. These mental shortcuts can create cognitive biases, or the process of deviating from rationality to form judgments and inferences in an illogical manner. Avoiding cognitive biases is a challenge, because people typically are oblivious to their manifestations (Dunbar et al., 2014), and professionals and experts are just as likely as anyone else to perpetuate cognitive biases when making important decisions (Englich, Mussweiler, & Strack, 2006). In situations where somewhat uncertain evaluations demanding great amounts of cognitive effort must be made, decision-makers are particularly prone to succumbing to biases (Abelson & Levi, 1985). “Given the propensity for cognitive biases to short-circuit the effectiveness of everyday decision-making, the need for methods to mitigate their effects is constant” (Dunbar et al., 2014, p. 307). Implementing a methodological decision-making tool for workers in the juvenile justice system removes many of the potentially harmful effects caused by heuristics and cognitive biases and promotes logical and rational decision-making based on available information about the young person and his or her charges.

In addition, there is a growing body of research on how decision-making can be improved in terms of increased accuracy and fewer errors. Much of this research focuses on how decision supports, and specifically checklists, can be effective for improved decision-making.

Decision supports help to ensure that tasks that are done again and again are completed efficiently and appropriately every time. Typically, a checklist includes each step needed to complete a task, which allows for an allocation of energy from remembering the steps to their more thoughtful and thorough completion. Checklists can also improve productivity, reliability, and delegation, since different people are able to complete the same task in the same way.

Research shows how highly skilled decision-makers in stressful situations benefit from the use of checklists. For example, airline pilots use checklists, particularly when a series of tasks is too extensive for memorization and when retrieving procedural items while experiencing high cognitive load (Ciavarelli, 2001; Clay-Williams & Colligan, 2015). In fact, not using or improperly using a checklist has been cited as a key contributing factor in aircraft accidents (Degani & Wiener, 1993). In medical situations of numerous types, checklists work to improve decisions, reduce errors, and lead to better outcomes. Similarly, in the medical field, checklists have been shown to improve diagnostic decision-making by experts by removing cognitive biases and mental shortcuts without increasing cognitive load (Sibbald, de Bruin, & van Merrienboer, 2013; Stiegler & Ruskin, 2012; Winters, Aswani, & Pronovost, 2011). Checklists can also help judges (Guthrie, Rachlinksi, & Wistrich, 2007) and police officers make nonbiased decisions quickly and with limited information, by encouraging them to be methodological rather than relying on memory or intuition alone (Beauregard & Michaud, 2015).

The use of checklists and other decision supports has been found to promote more accurate and consistent decisions, and their use is spreading from industries into the social services. For example, in child welfare, decision supports and training have been shown to be more effective than training alone. A combination of training on cognitive biases and training on decision-making processes and goals, along with a decision-support tool, can lead to better outcomes for children and families (Russell & Summers, 2013).

Many of the concerns about reliable, consistent, and accurate decision-making are echoed in the juvenile justice field. Given these concerns, it is likely that the use of decision supports and checklists can be effectively applied in the juvenile justice field. Police officers, intake officers, judges, probation staff, and others in the field can use decision supports to: (a) improve accuracy by using validated decision-making tools to reduce reliance on memorization of routine procedural items; (b) improve reliability by ensuring that when presented with the same information about a youth and his or her specific circumstances, similar decisions are made by workers, units, and departments, etc.; and (c) improve equity by reducing implicit and cognitive biases. These goals are consistent with the findings and recommendations of the Special Council and with the recommendation in the code change.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

We pose five research questions.

We hypothesize that despite typical implementation challenges and ongoing efforts to support system improvement, substantive and meaningful practice and process changes have been implemented. We expect these to be especially manifested and observable at specific decision points.

We also hypothesize that the number of referrals from law enforcement to the juvenile court has remained steady, while the number of secure out-of-home pre-adjudication detentions and the number of adjudications have declined in Georgia. We expect to find these declines as both total numbers and as proportions of law enforcement referrals. We further hypothesize that fewer adjudications are ending with a disposition to an out-of-home placement.

Method

Participant Characteristics

Georgia has a dual-court system whereby delinquency services are organized at both state and local levels. In most counties, community supervision, aftercare, and reentry services are offered by DJJ, an independent juvenile corrections agency. DJJ administers all secure detention and commitment to state public facilities (Juvenile Justice Geography, Policy, Practice & Statistics, 2016).

In 13 urban counties, local juvenile courts administer community supervision and reentry services (Chatham, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Dougherty, Floyd, Fulton, Glynn, Gwinnett, Hall, Spalding, Troup, and Whitfield counties). Twelve counties maintain a mixture of DJJ and local juvenile court service staff to provide community supervision services (Carroll, Columbia, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Gordon, Heard, Henry, Newton, Peach, Upson, and Walton counties).

Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, independent court staff, and representatives from the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF), DJJ, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the State Bar of Georgia, and the community participated in steering groups to help guide development and implementation of the interventions.

Sampling Procedures

Qualitative interviews and focus groups were held with representatives from 15 counties across the state of Georgia. The purpose of the interviews and focus groups was to understand, from a user’s perspective, how the tools were introduced statewide, how training and implementation were supported, and how the tools supported evidence-based decision-making. Workers in the field, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and community representatives gave feedback on the implementation and use of the intervention tools to representatives from NCCD and the Georgia DJJ. This feedback was taken into consideration as a mechanism for rapid-response, continuous quality improvement and used in ongoing trainings, information dissemination, and in conjunction with field testing to determine when adjustments to the tools were warranted. Counties were chosen by the steering group for qualitative interviews and focus groups. The selection of counties was designed to maximize representation of the 142 dependent counties in the state of Georgia.

Quantitative data were obtained from the Juvenile Tracking System (JTS), an electronic database maintained by DJJ for all 142 of Georgia’s dependent/shared court counties, and for independent counties when available. This state-operated case management system contains the legal history for all youth held in a juvenile detention facility, including referrals, charges, dispositions, and commitments to DJJ (including placements in detention facilities). Data describing arrests, referrals, charges, dispositions, and admissions—categorized by subgroups such as year and geography—were examined before the tool was implemented in 2013. Trend data also were analyzed for arrests, referrals, placements, and crime rates pre- and post-tool implementation.

Definitions of Variables

A referral (or case) represents a juvenile and offense entry into the juvenile court or DJJ systems. If one juvenile has multiple charges on the same date, they are counted as a single referral.

Pre-adjudication placements are measured as a period of time spent in a Georgia Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC). A placement is considered a new detention if it began during the reporting period.

Adjudication refers to the process of determining if a juvenile in a petitioned case is delinquent of the misdemeanor or felony charges. One finding of delinquency may include multiple charges.

Dispositions to out-of-home placements are measured by the order entered by the juvenile court at the conclusion of a disposition hearing. Dispositions that commit a person to DJJ may include placement in a Youth Development Campus (YDC) or a RYDC.

Decision-Support Tools Implemented in Georgia

Development and Implementation Leadership

Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, independent court staff, and representatives from GOCF, DJJ, DFCS, DPS, the State Bar of Georgia, and the community helped NCCD develop and implement the decision-support tools. Representatives met as steering groups for each intervention area (detention, adjudication/diversion, and disposition).

DJJ Leadership

The Georgia DJJ serves youth involved in the juvenile justice system up to the age of 21. DJJ runs 26 facilities and 92 community services offices throughout the state (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, 2016a).

Governor’s Office for Children and Families

Representatives from the now-defunct GOCF served on the workgroups for the decision-support tools.

The Council of Juvenile Court Judges

The Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ) is composed of all 144 judges of courts in Georgia with jurisdiction over juveniles. CJCJ staff provide support to juvenile courts through legal research services, legislative tracking, and specialized programs (Council of Juvenile Court Judges, 2016).

Overview

Workgroups were a key part of the development, evaluation, and implementation of each decision-making tool. Workgroup members provided information on policies, procedures, and uses. They also gave input on assessment vocabularies and item definitions. Workgroup members were present for the entire duration of development, evaluation, piloting, and implementation.

Separate quantitative analyses were conducted for the development of each tool, using DJJ’s case-level and aggregate data related to detentions, past legal history, risk factors, needs profile, disposition outcomes, and future arrests and adjudications.

Interventions

Georgia implemented four interventions in the form of assessments, which are described below. Each assessment was developed, implemented, and programmed into the case management system. Training and support on the assessment and related policies, processes, and procedures were provided.

Detention Assessment Instrument (DAI)

The DAI is used at the point of referral to the juvenile court from law enforcement following an arrest. It promotes structure and consistency in detention decisions and identifies the likelihood of rearrest before the adjudication hearing. The DAI produces classifications of low, medium, or high, corresponding to detention recommendations to release, release with conditions, or detain.

The DAI was developed with a workgroup comprising judges; prosecutors; public defenders; and representatives from GOCF, DJJ, the community, DFCS, independent court staff, DPS, and the State Bar of Georgia. Data for development were based on a sample of youth with a past DAI completed between March and August 2012. This included 9,985 completed DAI assessments for 7,134 unique people.

The DAI was tested for inter-rater reliability from April 12 to 21, 2014, and was field tested from May 7 to 18, 2014, in 28 counties. A survey to test usability, face validity, and implementation needs was conducted in July 2015.

The DAI was implemented into practice statewide in July 2015.

Pre-Disposition Risk Assessment (PDRA) and Structured Disposition Matrix (SDM)

The PDRA and SDM are used after a youth has been adjudicated and before the dispositional hearing. The PDRA helps identify which youth have a higher likelihood of rearrest or readjudication, informs diversion decisions, and helps identify where to allocate resources and target interventions. The PDRA produces a risk-level classification of low, medium, or high, which then feeds into the SDM. The SDM considers the risk level from the PDRA along with the youth’s most serious adjudicated offense to generate a dispositional recommendation.

The PDRA and the SDM were developed with workgroups comprising facility staff, supervisors, and managers; independent court staff; and representatives from DJJ, the judiciary, and the community. Data for development were based on a sample of 7,412 youth released to the community in 2008.

Items from the PDRA were field tested in 2013 as part of an OJJDP national evaluation of risk assessments. The PDRA was field tested from July 22 to August 2, 2013, in four counties. The PDRA and SDM were implemented statewide in January 2014.

Juvenile Needs and Strengths Assessment (JNA)

The JNA is used after a dispositional decision is made. It promotes structure and consistency in case planning by identifying the top three strengths and top three needs of a youth. The identified strengths and needs are used to guide supervision (community and facility) and case planning decisions, as well as to help identify service plan areas to target.

The JNA was developed by identifying research-informed domains and working with a workgroup comprising dependent and independent county court representatives to prioritize these domains for youth in Georgia.

The JNA was tested for inter-rater reliability from April 25 to April 30, 2014, and a survey was conducted to test usability, face validity, and implementation needs. The JNA was implemented into practice in September 2015.

Results

Practice and Process Changes

One finding of the focus groups and interviews was that the implementation process has led to improved communication and coordination between DJJ and the courts. However, respondents said continued and expanded training and support are clearly needed.

Feedback on the assessments was positive overall, with an emphasis on their usefulness in diverting youth out of the system if they are at low risk or pose low public safety risks. A theme across each focus group and interview was that the population makeup of those being detained, adjudicated, or placed in out-of-home settings was changing. The perception was that these shifts were positive and needed. Some exceptions to this theme included concerns about specific indicators and how to factor in public perceptions of offense seriousness. Others brought up cases with mental health concerns or charges relating to sex offenses as potential exceptions to the overall positive trend toward a better-focused population. These exceptions aside, feedback regarding the interventions and assessments was that they assist in better targeting of energies and interventions.

Another common theme among respondents was an appreciation of each assessment’s simplicity and ease of use. People in every county and across different job functions mentioned that the instruments were clear and user friendly. Some had questions about the current state of accessing the instruments in digital form on JTS. Several questions were raised about specific types of cases in which a person’s history seemed to count against him or her. Several respondents asked for clarifications on how a history of misdemeanor arrests might be differentiated from a history of felony arrests.

Beyond the feedback themes, few hindrances to implementation were found. Intervention and assessment training was offered to each county, and most respondents took part. Approximately 1,000 staff participated in more than 40 DAI trainings, and about 800 staff participated in more than 50 PDRA/SDM and 30 JNA trainings. People in each job function (judge, attorney, probation worker, etc.) expressed a clear understanding of the intervention goals and implementation steps.

In addition to implementing the decision-support tools, Georgia offers a statewide competitive grant to encourage improvements to the juvenile justice system. The Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant (JJIG) offers evidence-based programs to youth who are usually committed to DJJ, thus reducing the number of institutionalized youth. The JJIG helps juvenile courts implement these programs through funding and technical support. More than 1,100 youth benefited from programs funded by the JJIG in its first year; by the end of its second year, JJIG had served nearly 1,700 youth across the state. To reduce recidivism, JJIG programs are targeted to youth who score as moderate to high risk on the PDRA.

Law Enforcement Referrals

For more than a decade, law enforcement referrals to the juvenile court have been declining. Before the interventions, from 2006 to 2013, there was a 38% reduction in referrals. This trend continued through and after intervention implementation. Law enforcement made 38,088 referrals to the juvenile court in 2013. By the end of 2014, this number had decreased by more than 11%, to 34,045 referrals (Figure 1). This was part of a downward trend and the largest percentage decrease seen in the past decade (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Number of referrals to juvenile court by year.

Figure 1. Number of referrals to juvenile court by year.

Figure 2. Change in number of referrals to juvenile court by year.

Figure 2. Change in number of referrals to juvenile court by year.

In terms of offenses rather than referrals, 57,970 youth were charged with an offense in 2013. This number dropped to 50,257 in 2014 and to 48,022 in 2015. This represents a decrease of 17% over the 2 years.

Secure Out-of-Home Pre-Adjudication Detentions

From 2006 to 2008, there were more than 20,000 out-of-home placements each year. The number of secure out-of-home detentions in an RYDC was 14,731 before the 2013 interventions; it decreased to 11,269 in 2015. This is consistent with a downward trend during the past decade (Figure 3). Similarly, the daily population in RYDCs for pre-adjudication placements was 710 in May 2013 (before the intervention), and 597 in May 2016 (after the intervention). During the first year of implementation, there was a 16% decrease in pre-adjudication detentions (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Number of detentions in RYDCs by year.

Figure 3. Number of detentions in RYDCs by year.

Figure 4. Change in number of detentions in RYDCs by year.

Figure 4. Change in number of detentions in RYDCs by year.

Adjudications

The total number of adjudications in 2013 was 26,228, which dropped to 20,193 in 2014 and to 19,152 in 2015. This represents a 27% reduction in adjudications.

From 2006 to 2008, there were around 3,000 new instances of commitment per year. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of commitments declined steadily each year. The number of cases resulting in a commitment to DJJ dropped from 1,750 in 2013 to 1,373 in 2015, a 22% reduction (Figure 5). This was part of a downward trend nearly spanning the last decade (Figure 6). Although there is an uptick in commitments in 2015, as a proportion of all adjudications, commitments to DJJ dropped from approximately 4.5% to approximately 3.5%.

Figure 5. Number of cases resulting in commitment.

Figure 5. Number of cases resulting in commitment.

Figure 6. Change in number of cases resulting in commitment by year.

Figure 6. Change in number of cases resulting in commitment by year.

Dispositions to Out-of-Home Placements

New commitments to a YDC dropped from 1,420 in 2013, to 1,245 in 2014, and to 1,178 in 2015 (Figure 7). Dispositions to a short-term placement (STP) also dropped, from 460 in 2013 to 231 in 2014; the number rose again to 327 in 2015. Taken together, this represents a decrease of 21% in dispositions to out-of-home placements, followed by an uptick of 2% (Figure 8). The percentage change for 2014 and 2015 in the number of dispositions to YDCs since implementation is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 7. Dispositions to out-of-home placements, 20132015.

Figure 7. Dispositions to out-of-home placements, 2013–2015.

Figure 8. Change in number of dispositions to out-of-home placements since implementation.

Figure 8. Change in number of dispositions to out-of-home placements since implementation.

Figure 9. Change in number of dispositions to YDCs since implementation.

Figure 9. Change in number of dispositions to YDCs since implementation.

Dispositions for designated felony commitments ([DFC] as set out in statute as distinct from other commitments) remained approximately the same over the same period: 372 in 2013, 345 in 2014, and 391 in 2015. Two youth were screened into a Department of Corrections placement in 2013, 3 in 2014, and none in 2015.

Discussion

Outcomes

These results demonstrate that Research Question 1 (“Have observable practice and process changes been implemented?”) can be answered in the affirmative. Changes in assessments, training, coordination, and financial incentives were all observed directly, along with an assessment of implementation fidelity.

Research Question 2 (“Has the number of law enforcement referrals to the juvenile court changed?”) can also be answered in the affirmative, but contrarily to our hypothesis. We hypothesized that law enforcement referrals would be unchanged; however, referrals from law enforcement decreased by 11% from 2013 to 2014. This affirms the suggestion that the observed practice and process changes have not resulted in an increase in referrals, which further suggests that criminal behavior has not increased.

The findings suggest that Research Question 3 (“Has the number of secure out-of-home pre-adjudication detentions declined?”) also was supported by the evidence. Both secure out-of-home detentions in RYDCs generally, and those specifically pre-adjudication, declined markedly—by 24% and 16%, respectively.

Research Question 4 (“Has the number of adjudications declined?”) also can be affirmed: The number of adjudications clearly declined. The number of adjudications observed dropped by 27%, and the number of adjudications leading to a commitment to DJJ also dropped, by 44%, from 2013 to 2015.

The answer to Research Question 5 (“Has the number of dispositions to out-of-home placements declined?”) was similarly positive. The number of dispositions resulting in an out-of-home placement into a YDC or STP dropped by 20%.

Based on daily bed-count data, the number of young people incarcerated in the state of Georgia has dropped dramatically. In May 2013, counting both YDC and RYDC placements, 1,842 youth were in secure placements (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, 2016b). In May 2016, 1,441 youth were in secure placements. Between those two May days, more than 400 additional young people in Georgia slept in their own beds. Though at a slower pace, Georgia also has steadily reduced its capacity by closing some facilities and replacing others, which totaled 2,607 in 2008 and 2,008 in 2016 (Georgia Juvenile Justice Data Clearinghouse, 2016).

Potential Limitations

Because this research is applied to the real world, rather than performed in a laboratory, it is not possible to isolate the impact made only by the practice and process changes. It can be difficult to separate the effects of specific aspects of the interventions. For example, the executive orders issued by the governor, the leadership of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, the legislative action on code change, and the presence of technical assistance providers are likely to have influenced the results, independently of the actual practice and process changes. We cannot say for sure which of these factors, either independently or in combination, was critical to achieving these outcomes.

Similarly, there may be confounding of the intervention with ongoing changes in the juvenile justice field, both in underlying youth criminality and behavior and in police practices. Notable downward national trends in arrests and violent behaviors offer a background for the current study.

Implications

The findings have several theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, they demonstrate that a risk assessment–driven approach to reducing out-of-home placements can be consistent with public safety, a reduction in referrals to the juvenile court, and cost savings at the state level. Rather than spurring an increase in arrests for criminal behavior, the changes in placement practices—including diversions of youth with low risk scores and restricting the use of commitments and out-of-home placements—all occurred with a reduction in referrals to juvenile court from law enforcement.

Practically, the efforts made in Georgia and the current study outline a path of successful system improvement. Other states and jurisdictions can look to the combined efforts made in Georgia to shape their own system improvement efforts. Reducing out-of-home placements by using decision-making structures such as risk assessments—along with strong leadership, financial incentives, and legislative support—can support young people, help to maintain community safety, and more precisely target the allocation of resources to where they can be most effective.

Further research could explore the relationship between specific system improvement changes and the reduction in the number of arrests for criminal behavior. Offering comparisons with other states and jurisdictions, as well as more comparisons across time, could strengthen the current study. Future research efforts could consider how practice and process changes can support legislative and policy changes.

Conclusions

This study shows the effectiveness of this approach in improving the accuracy, consistency, and equity of decision-making in juvenile justice. It demonstrates that states can safely reduce the numbers of youth placed in secure settings while also doing more to support their positive development.

Although more research, empirical findings, and data should and can be brought to bear on this topic, the work in Georgia highlights a potential path forward for other states seeking to improve their systems. Leaders in other state systems should feel encouraged by this demonstration that the application of research, data, and structured decision-making in the context of committed political support can have a marked impact on how the juvenile court responds to young people charged with an offense. This study shows a way to decrease recidivism and equip young people with a better chance at successfully transitioning to adulthood, without becoming trapped in the current juvenile justice system’s singular focus on costly and harmful punitive approaches.

About the Authors

Jesse Russell, MA, PhD, specializes in guiding sound strategic choices, offering clients organizational insights, and engaging stakeholders. Dr. Russell enjoys working with partners to understand their organization from a long-term strategic perspective. He believes that analytics means more than just numbers and statistics, but about how we can tell the story of real-world impact.

Erin Manske, BA, works nationally with juvenile justice organizations as a researcher and consultant on their development, implementation, and use of structured decision-making tools. She helps produce actionable insights by combining data expertise with extensive content knowledge. Ms. Manske is dedicated to supporting agencies to achieve both short- and long-term change.

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