Features

The Value of a Second Chance

Illustration by Jon KrauseZero tolerance policies have led to a disturbing number of in-school arrests — over 1,500 in Philadelphia alone last year. Once in the justice system, youths’ chances of leading healthy, productive lives are diminished considerably. Naomi Goldstein, PhD, is working to divert the damaging “school-to-prison pipeline,” improving outcomes for youth and making Philadelphia a national leader in the process.

By Tim Hyland
Illustration by Jon Krause

After more than 15 years working to transform the way our nation thinks about and delivers juvenile justice, Naomi Goldstein understands that changing people’s minds about crime and punishment — especially crime and punishment for at-risk youth — is no easy task.

But Goldstein has also had enough success to know that change is possible. And, she says, sometimes a simple shift in mindset can make all the difference.

“In all of my work, it’s about transforming this idea that there’s no hope for these youth,” Goldstein says. “It’s about recognizing that, if we use empirical data, if we enact the right changes in philosophy and if we change the structure of the system, there is hope — these young people can lead positive lives. And that’s not just better for them; it’s better for their communities, for their states and for the country.”

Goldstein, an associate professor of psychology in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and co-director of Drexel’s JD/PhD Program in Law and Psychology, has emerged as one of the nation’s leading thinkers in the area of juvenile justice reform. Her unique research interests — which range from anger management to trial competence and from intervention with female juvenile offenders to Miranda rights comprehension among youth suspects — have uncovered serious structural problems within the nation’s juvenile court systems. Perhaps more importantly, her work has delivered real solutions to some of the trickiest problems facing those systems today, and has offered greater hope to an untold number of at-risk youth both in Philadelphia and beyond.

At the core of all of her projects and initiatives is the very simple, very problematic and, to Goldstein’s mind, entirely undeniable fact that, because much of our nation’s juvenile justice system was built on the same general framework as the adult justice system, it was inevitably going to fall short of society’s expectations.

“These [juvenile] laws were really designed with adults in mind,” Goldstein says. “There is an expectation in the legal system that you can take these laws and apply them to youth and that these young people will function the same as adults when confronted with the system. …But we know from a lot of different sources that adolescents don’t make decisions the same way that adults do, particularly in high pressure situations.”

Drawing the Line

When it comes to “high pressure” situations, one couldn’t find many more pressurized than that of a police interrogation room. And it was in that exact context that Goldstein, as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and on clinical internship at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, first became curious about the workings of the juvenile justice system.

More specifically, she developed an interest in how well — or how poorly — adolescents would perform when interrogated, and whether they were actually capable of making informed decisions as important as whether they should waive their Miranda rights and provide confessions to police. It didn’t take her long to discern that most youth — particularly younger kids — were not equipped to do so.

“These kids are brought in for questioning, and it’s a very intense situation,” Goldstein says. “The police are allowed to deceive suspects — even juvenile suspects — in order to get a confession, and many youth simply have fundamental misunderstandings about what their [Miranda rights] mean. So, they may not actually have the required capacities to make that legal decision. Additionally, during most interrogations, there is no interested adult in the room working on the child’s behalf. Even when there is, the adult may be pressuring the kid to respond to the police — to cooperate with them and take responsibility for what they may have done. The adult is not encouraging the child to assert their rights to silence and legal counsel, which would be in the child’s best legal interest.”

Goldstein’s work on Miranda rights eventually led her to question more broadly the ins and outs of juvenile justice; how youth are treated in our legal system as opposed to adults, the unique psychological characteristics that place youth at such risk once they enter the system, and even whether juvenile justice facilities need to provide different mental health treatments for females and males in the system. In short, she has developed a broad-based interest in not just identifying the problems within our nation’s juvenile justice system, but also in developing and implementing solutions that are both innovative and practical.

Here in Philadelphia, Goldstein’s work on two related projects has already gone a long way toward improving outcomes for at-risk youth.

With the support of a Stoneleigh Foundation Fellowship, Goldstein has been collaborating with Philadelphia’s juvenile justice leaders to reform the city’s juvenile probation system.

By making the system more responsive to the ways adolescents make decisions about their behaviors, Goldstein believes these youth should be better positioned to successfully complete the terms of probation. At the same time, with a grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, she has been working with the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, and the School District of Philadelphia to evaluate a new school-based police diversion program that has been implemented in all public schools in Philadelphia. The program is designed to decrease the number of students arrested in schools, thereby interrupting the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” It’s a pipeline that is especially problematic for African-American students who, during the 2013-2014 school year, had a higher chance (22 percent) of being arrested for any given incident than white (17.2 percent), Asian (17.1 percent) or Latino (17.8 percent) students.

This innovative work, which has gained attention across the country for its early results, is built on a rather simple premise, one that Goldstein can support with any number of existing studies. That premise, she says, is this: Once a young person is arrested and placed in some kind of correctional facility, his or her chances of leading a normal, productive life are slashed considerably. About 90 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities report histories of traumatic events, and the seclusion, loss of privacy, and perceived lack of safety in these residential facilities can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Additionally, more than 50 percent of youth drop out of school upon release from juvenile justice facilities, Goldstein says, and a history of arrest and conviction can generate a wide array of collateral consequences, including the family’s eviction from public housing and the youth’s disqualification from many colleges, jobs, and from military service — no small issue for the many young people who may see that as their path out of difficult circumstances.

So, she says, it only makes sense to keep the youth who present little risk to the community out of those facilities — and out of the juvenile justice system — whenever possible.

“What we’re trying to do with the school-based police diversion program is keep low-risk kids from getting arrested and ever coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. When that is unavoidable, what we hope to do with the probation reform work is to reduce the number of kids in detention, and reduce the number of kids in longer-term residential placements,” she says. “If kids are low-risk offenders, then we want to keep them out of placement, because the simple fact of the matter is that residential juvenile justice facilities have incredibly negative impacts on young people.”

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

In some ways, Goldstein says, it’s completely normal for kids to break the rules. For some, that means breaking the rules of the house. For others, it’s getting in trouble in school. And for some others still, that rule-breaking can cross into criminal activity.

But even the latter situation is not necessarily one that portends a bleak future.

“To some extent, misbehavior and even breaking the law is not so unusual among adolescents,” she says. “ The vast majority of kids who do these things go on to become completely well-adapted individuals who don’t commit crimes.”

Unfortunately, even for kids who do manage to stay out of legal trouble after their first offense, the justice system is in some ways stacked against them. And the problems caused by that structural flaw are far-reaching.

Goldstein notes that 60 percent of delinquent youth receive probation as their primary consequence — a move that at least keeps them out of detention and residential placement. Unfortunately, she says, about 50 percent of those youth will one day end up in residential juvenile justice facilities anyway, not necessarily because they committed a second crime, but because they violated some terms of their probation, such as failing to attend a supervision meeting with a probation officer or missing school. Complicating matters further is the fact that many “first offenses” may be very minor or even sometimes accidental; imagine the very plausible scenario, Goldstein notes, of a student who works an afternoon job at a warehouse and accidentally brings his box cutter to school with him. Careless mistake or not, that offense often sends an otherwise innocent student into the system.

What she and her colleagues have been advocating, then, is setting youth up to succeed, which means not necessarily putting violators in detention or residential placements just because they didn’t meet all of the conditions of their probation. There’s a good reason they’re advocating for that, too: the adolescent brain is not fully developed, and it is wired to emphasize short-term positive outcomes of behavior over long-term negative consequences. This can create problems for youth on probation — the immediate fun of partying with friends on a Saturday night is a more powerful motivator than the risk of probation revocation at next month’s court hearing because of a curfew violation and failed drug screen. Establishing a juvenile probation system that can reinforce positive behaviors and provide proportional consequences for negative behaviors can help shape youths’ decision making, and, as a result, help them successfully complete probation. “We’re trying to move away from this ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to probation,” Goldstein explains.
“Historically, if you fail one of your, often, very numerous probation requirements, the thinking has been, ‘Well, OK, you’ve violated your probation and so our only option is to lock you up.’ What I’m doing with this project is partnering with Philadelphia’s Juvenile Probation Department and other juvenile justice leaders to apply empirical data to the juvenile justice system — data that suggest that the use of behavioral shaping principles will work to improve youth probationers’ behavior.”

Goldstein admits this represents a fairly dramatic shift in mindset for some in the justice community, not to mention in the community at large. After all, “zero tolerance” policies in schools and similar approaches to probation were put on the books for a reason — presumably, to crack down on crime, punish those who commit crimes, and keep the public safe. Those policies may have been well intentioned, she says, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed, or that they shouldn’t be completely rethought.

“A common requirement of probation is that kids must attend school every day, but imagine a kid who hasn’t been to school in two months and is now attending a couple days a week. You can either tell this kid that he has failed to fulfill his probation requirement or you can recognize that going from no school to two days per week is a big improvement — and that he actually deserves credit for that behavior,” she says. “If these young people on probation learn that there is something for them to work toward and to achieve, it can promote positive behavior in the long run. That’s a big part of this work.”

Real Results

In Philadelphia, Goldstein’s somewhat radical ideas are being put to the test.

And they’re passing with flying colors.

Philadelphia school officials, police and juvenile justice leaders instituted late in the 2013-2014 school year a new policy for first-time offenders in the city’s schools. Under the rules established by the new School Police Diversion Program, first-time offenders who commit low-level delinquent acts on or around school premises are not arrested — which is to say, they never formally “enter the system.” Unlike those students arrested in school who are handcuffed, removed from school, taken by police car to the police station, held for up to six hours for processing, and finger printed, students diverted through this new program meet with a Department of Human Services social worker and are referred for intensive prevention services after school hours. Therapy and other support is available not only to the youth, but to their parents and families as well. The goal is to address the underlying reasons for misbehavior rather than subjecting the youth to the collateral consequences of juvenile justice system involvement.

Imagine a 12-year-old boy brings a knife to school because he is afraid of a group of kids that have been bullying him. In previous years, this student would likely be arrested. Under the new diversion program, school police and staff will address the bullying and the student will be provided with the support services he may need.

“With this program, these kids will not come into contact with the juvenile justice system,” Goldstein says. “They will not be arrested. They will not be taken out of school. Instead, they will be directed to programming that will help them meet their needs. … It’s a one-time deal, yes, but at least with that first incident, they are staying out of the system.”

The program only began in May 2014, but early returns suggest that it’s been a great success. There were 232 arrests in the School District of Philadelphia during the first one-and-a-half months of the 2013-2014 academic year. At the same point in this school year, there were 91 arrests, resulting in a 59 percent reduction in the number of school-based arrests. And the arrest reduction does not appear to be creating a risk to school safety. Goldstein says that the vast majority of school police officers polled on the efficacy of the program indicated that it had “positive effects” on school safety.

Perhaps just as notably, not a single officer reported concern that the program was negatively impacting school safety.

“Most of the officers we talked to [before the start of the program] were telling us they felt the old policies didn’t work,” she says. “That being said, although many officers were optimistic that the new program would be better for the students involved in incidents, many remained skeptical about its broader impacts. That’s why it was so important for us to hear, after the first six weeks of implementation, that the vast majority of the officers felt it was not only helpful to the youth directly involved, but it was actually increasing the overall safety of the schools.”

Going forward, she says, the plan is to build the program out even more fully, with the ultimate aim of drastically reducing the number of Philadelphia public school students arrested in school each year. In the 2013-2014 school year, that number was a staggering 1,555. Through the diversion program, Goldstein says the aim is to cut that number in half, resulting in no more than 800 arrested in school each year.

She is optimistic that the goal can be reached.

That’s due in large part, she says, to the efforts of the legal community in Philadelphia, which has, over the past 15 years, developed a very forward-thinking and nationally lauded perspective on juvenile justice. The city has become a real leader in reform efforts nationwide, she says. And the more successful Philadelphia’s programs become, the more hope there will be for at-risk youth nationwide. “There’s a lot of attention on this topic now, but that certainly wasn’t the case a decade ago,” Goldstein says. “Philadelphia really took the lead on reform efforts in this area, and the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with all of this work has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. …My hope is that a lot of these projects I’m working on in Philadelphia will be successful not only in Philly, but in other places around the country as well.”

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