Outgrowing Juvenile Justice

I WAS LOOKING at 10 to 15 years,” says Jamal Vick, in the streetwise way of somebody who’s well-acquainted with the criminal justice system. The bulky 18-year-old dreams of one day running his own restaurant, but right now he’s explaining how he was nearly run into state prison.

Some might say that’s exactly where he ought to be. Vick was convicted of assault with intent to murder, the upshot of a bloody gang attack that was hardly his first scrape with the law. Sixteen years old at the time, he was indicted under the state’s tough Youthful Offender Law. Passed in 1996, the law permits juvenile lawbreakers as young as 14 to receive adult sentences for a wide range of crimes. But prosecutors and judges still have plenty of leeway, and instead of the 10-to-15, Vick received a “blended” juvenile/adult sentence: commitment to the state’s Department of Youth Services until he’s 21, followed by four years of adult probation, with a suspended sentence to adult prison hanging over him during that time.

The system has decided to roll the dice on Vick one more time, betting that, despite the mayhem he’s been part of, the Boston teen has turned the corner to adulthood with a new sense of responsibility and civility. But it’s a hedged bet. The probation and suspended sentence mean the trail of Vick’s youthful offenses will follow him until he’s 25, and one misstep could still land him in jail–something that never would have happened under the traditional system of juvenile justice, which wipes the slate clean once the offender becomes an adult.

If Vick has felt the harsh edge of the state’s new juvenile justice law, his story also highlights the degree to which Massachusetts still gives another chance even to some juveniles who have committed crimes of violence that have given rise to a growing national chorus of “adult crime, adult time.”

The push and pull between calls for tough justice and efforts to reshape young lives underscore conflict at the heart of the juvenile justice system. It’s a system that pledges to protect public safety, but is predicated on the principle that minors can’t be held to the same level of responsibility for their actions as adults.

Striking the proper balance between those two strands has always been a challenge for the juvenile justice system. But a decade of rising public angst over violent youth crime has shifted the balance across the country, as state after state has put new laws on the books allowing for stiffer sentences for juvenile offenders and automatic transfer of some cases to adult court. Meanwhile, juvenile correctional systems have undergone the same building boom as adult prisons, adding thousands of beds to a system that, like its adult counterpart, is facing increasing scrutiny for its disproportionate confinement of minorities.

Massachusetts has not been immune to the trend toward more punitive treatment of juvenile lawbreakers. Twice as many young people are in the custody of the Department of Youth Services, the state’s juvenile corrections agency, as there were a decade ago. And for the past two years, the Cellucci administration has filed legislation that would move DYS from the control of the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services to the Executive Office of Public Safety, a move that critics say would further erode the traditional distinction between the juvenile and adult corrections systems.

But as much as Massachusetts has caught the national wave toward harsher treatment of juvenile offenders, it has also stood apart. Few 15-year-olds have been sentenced to 25 years behind bars here. And while other states are minimizing their juvenile courts, Massachusetts is expanding its courts for kids statewide. Indeed, local and national experts alike say the Massachusetts system remains a model of forward-thinking juvenile justice, one that still shows a good deal of fidelity to the concept of rehabilitation for those who enter criminal enterprise before they’ve left childhood.

That said, there is good reason to ask whether we are really doing justice to juvenile justice–and ample reason to worry if we are not.

Since the mid-1990s, some crime experts have warned of a coming surge of youth crime, one that would make the violence-filled days of the late 1980s and early ’90s look like a romp at the beach. James Alan Fox of Northeastern University and John DiIulio of Princeton University offered chilling scenarios of juvenile crime driven largely by a teenage population boom: a 17 percent increase–24 percent in Massachusetts–in the number of 12-to-17-year-olds between 1995 and 2005. Within this swelling cohort lurks a subset of so-called “super-predators,” as DiIulio dubbed them, who promise to be more violent at younger ages than those who preceded them, the misbegotten products of increasingly dysfunctional, fatherless homes.

So far, these dire predictions have not come to pass. Indeed, up to the midpoint of the teen population bulge, juvenile and adult crime rates alike were dropping, both locally and nationally. “The coming wave is all washed up,” says Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a vocal critic of the “demography is destiny” argument.

But no one can say with certainty that the wave won’t yet come crashing ashore. Boston experienced a 13 percent increase in gun-related crimes the first five months of last year, and several high-profile shootings involving teens over the summer had community leaders warning against complacency. “We don’t want to overstate the danger, but we have to get back to basics,” Michael Kozu, an organizer with Project Right, a neighborhood group in Boston’s Grove Hall section, said at the time. “I think the police had a sense of the older players, but clearly, the younger kids got older.”

“Usually, we get a summer lull,” added Peter Forbes, the director of the DYS district that includes Boston. “This year, there was no lull.”

The palpable worries of those on the front lines raise a question well worth asking while we can still catch our breath: If the recent uptick in youth crime does herald a return to the violence of a decade ago, is our juvenile justice system any better prepared to deal with it this time around?

Of Carrots and Sticks and Kids

If any state is equipped to handle juvenile crime, it should be Massachusetts. The Bay State was the first to establish a juvenile corrections system, in 1846. More than a century later, in the early 1970s, the state served as a national leader again, when a crusading commissioner of youth services, Jerome Miller, dismantled the system of large reform schools in favor of smaller, treatment-oriented programs, many of them operated by private, community-based agencies.
(See “It’s good to be naïve if you want to get anything done,” sidebar story)

Massachusetts remains “the gold standard,” says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a national think tank that, in the late 1980s, named DYS the best juvenile corrections system in the country. Studies by NCCD found that recidivism rates among youths leaving the decentralized Massachusetts system were equal to or substantially below those of other states.

By the early 1990s, however, the picture of youth crime had changed considerably, as violent juvenile crime rates soared due to an incendiary mix of crack cocaine, flourishing street gangs, and a flood of handguns into urban centers. DYS was ill-equipped to handle the rising tide of serious violent offenders. Making matters worse, the department’s $58.6 million budget for 1990 was cut by $5 million in 1991, at the height of the state’s fiscal crisis, and was virtually level-funded the next two years.

The department’s shortcomings came into full view in 1993. A 15-year-old under DYS supervision but living in the community was charged in connection with a double murder, and several months later, three DYS youths died within a one-week span, two from gunfire and a third hit by a train. A special commission formed to scrutinize the DYS system concluded that the deaths “highlighted the Department’s inability to provide for the safety of the public or the youth in its custody.” Among the commission’s recommendations were a substantial increase in the number of beds in secure treatment facilities and a vastly enhanced system for monitoring and supervising juveniles released back into the community.

DYS has followed through on both points. More than 500 beds were added to the system during the mid-1990s, and a far more rigorous system of community monitoring was developed.

State spending on DYS has also risen sharply. The department’s budget has more than doubled in eight years, going from $54.5 million in 1993 to $115.9 million this year. But the budget increases have only kept pace with the steep rise in the DYS population. There were 1,649 juveniles committed to DYS in 1993; today there are more than 3,200 youths in the department’s custody. Of those, 87.4 percent are male and 12.6 percent are female. The DYS population is 44 percent white, 24 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 2 percent of other backgrounds. More than 30 percent come from the state’s three largest cities: Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

The number of juveniles in the DYS system has climbed steadily even as youth crime rates have fallen. Department officials say this is the result of several factors, including an increased tendency by courts to commit youths to DYS custody, an increase in the average length of commitment, and the expansion of DYS jurisdiction to include those aged 18 to 20.

About half of the youths are in residential facilities ranging from group homes to highly secure locked units, while half live at home, but under the department’s supervision. They can be returned to a residential facility if they violate the terms of their release.

Those living at home have received particular attention in recent years. It’s part of a growing recognition that the transition back to life in the community is make-or-break time for juvenile offenders, a period when they either rise to the challenge of finding new, positive paths or fall into old patterns on familiar streets. At the center of DYS’s new approach has been the establishment of “day reporting centers,” 36 drop-in sites across the state where DYS- supervised youths get help with everything from anger management to job and school placement.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Commonwealth has gotten much tougher on the most serious violent offenders while at the same time allowing for rehabilitation and support services…designed to encourage successful reintegration into the community,” says DYS Commissioner Robert Gittens.

Jamal Vick has seen both the carrot and the increasingly tough stick of the state’s juvenile justice system. Though his conviction under the new youthful offender statute means he’ll be under the thumb of the law until he’s 25, he’s not behind bars or in a locked juvenile facility. He’s back at home in Dorchester–but spending lots of time at the DYS day reporting center just off Blue Hill Avenue.

“I’m intelligent, I just never went to school. I never stayed a full day in the two years I went there,” Vick says, describing his fleeting presence at Dorchester High School, one of the city’s toughest and lowest-performing high schools. His allegiances were not to any school colors, but to the blue shades of a local faction of the Crips street gang he ran with.

Now with a GED certificate he earned in a DYS facility, and an application to Roxbury Community College in his jacket pocket, Vick says he’s focused on his dual interests of culinary arts and business management. He shrugs off the suggestion that he could fall back into street life. “I’m stronger than that,” he says. But he quickly confides that without the help of the day reporting center’s director, Ron Pasquale, and the structure that the community-based facility gives him, things might well be quite different. “I probably would have been doing the same shit I did before,” he says. “It’s not like it’s not there anymore.”

Pasquale, a 10-year DYS veteran, says the turnaround in Vick’s behavior while confined in a residential facility so impressed him that he pushed for his release. “He showed me a lot,” says Pasquale. “I said, I want to go to bat for this kid.”

DYS officials make those kinds of calls every day, at some risk. They know a bad decision could come back to haunt them. “Do I get worried?” asks Pasquale. “Yeah, I always get worried.” But, he continues, “The alternative would be not to try to take any chances with these kids, throwing them in our system, keeping them as long as we can.” That would solve the public safety worries–temporarily. “But [then] all we¹re creating is monsters,” says Pasquale. “All we’re preparing them for is the adult system.”

Community leaders who work with young people are effusive in their praise for the day reporting centers. “It’s a quantum leap in the right direction,” says Mark Scott, program director at the Ella J. Baker House in Boston, a faith-based program whose outreach workers try to steer at-risk teens toward positive pursuits. “It’s one of the best things that’s happened to Boston on the crime/criminal justice front in the last two or three years. It’s on the level of Night Light,” he says, referring to a program of home visits by probation officers. “It’s on the level of clergy getting out from behind the pulpit.”

Boys To Men

While the day reporting centers have been welcomed by everyone from probation officers to prosecutors to defense lawyers, there has hardly been the same unanimity of opinion on other juvenile-justice innovations, including the state’s youthful offender law. “I think it has badly skewed the juvenile court,” says Kenneth King, deputy director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School, which provides legal representation to juvenile defendants. “We are in danger of losing sight of the original reasons for the juvenile court. When the juvenile court was created, it was to look primarily at the offender, and what brought the offender to court, without focusing exclusively on the offense. We are increasingly becoming an offense-driven court.”

Indeed, sentences are now closely tied to the particular charge, with those cases that qualify for indictment under the youthful offender statute carrying the threat of lengthy adult prison sentences. Juveniles who are indicted under the statute often feel tremendous pressure to strike plea agreements with prosecutors in order to avoid the uncertain sentence that could follow a trial, defenders say. That’s exactly what happened to Vick, who agreed to his hybrid sentence rather than take the risk of going to trial. “The balance now is clearly in the prosecutor’s court,” says Boston Juvenile Court Judge Stephen Limon.

How much so, however, is hard to say. From October 1996 to September 1998, the first two years the law was in place, only 41 juveniles received an adult sentence, 11 percent of the 372 cases indicted under the statute statewide. Fully one-third were committed to DYS until age 21, while 5 percent received a DYS commitment followed by a suspended sentence while on adult probation. The rest were placed on probation, had their cases dismissed, continued, or were acquitted.

“I don’t think we’ve lost that focus on the offender in Suffolk County,” says Mark Zanini, chief of juvenile prosecution for District Attorney Ralph Martin. Zanini says his office seeks youthful offender indictments in only about 10 percent of those cases where the law could apply. “We’re well aware of the issues that kids bring into the courtroom, whether they’re family issues, substance abuse, emotional issues.”

Law enforcement officials point to “juvenile justice roundtables” they inaugurated in the early 1990s as further evidence of their commitment to steering youths to services that can help them avoid landing in court. The forums, which are held in local schools, bring together prosecutors, probation officers, police, and officials from other agencies dealing with juveniles, such as the Department of Social Services. The sessions focus on youths in the DYS system or those at risk of delinquency, but whether they help kids out or set them up is a subject of dispute.

Lisa Casella, a prosecutor who directs the Community-Based Juvenile Justice Project in Suffolk County, says the forums amount to “interagency policing of one another to make sure we are all doing our job with a kid,” she says. “Many times, that one extra effort will bring a kid back on track.”

Defense attorneys and some youth advocates, however, say the meetings have less to do with agencies policing each other than with policing juveniles. “I don’t see any services connected with the roundtables,” says public defender Joshua Dohan. “Bringing the prosecutors [together] does absolutely nothing except equip them to target these kids.”

Juvenile defense attorneys, on the other hand, are starting to get equipped to do more than try to clear their clients of charges. Dohan is director of the Youth Advocacy Project, a Boston-based program that sees juvenile defense as not just a matter of winning cases for kids but a means to “give them a chance to make good decisions about their future so they don’t wind up back in court,” he says.

From a warren of cramped offices in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, YAP has developed into a sort of one-stop shop for youths facing charges in juvenile court. Funded by the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services–the state office that oversees legal defense services for indigent defendants–YAP not only has seven defense lawyers on staff, but also two social workers, a psychologist, and a community liaison who links clients to everything from summer camps to mentors to job training. Grants from foundations support two additional attorneys who specialize in education law, advocating for special education programs or other services for juvenile defendants, more than 80 percent of whom Dohan says have unmet educational needs. (See “These clients don’t just get off, they get help” sidebar story.)

It’s one thing to “win a particular case,” says Dohan, one of the two attorneys who founded the program in 1992. But if you can keep a kid from becoming “chronically court involved,” he says, “then you’ve really done something.”

Order In The Court, But Few Services

For kids who can’t avoid becoming court-involved, there are plenty of courts to get involved with these days. While support for juvenile courts has weakened in some states–a consequence of the push to try more juveniles as adults–Massachusetts has dramatically expanded its juvenile judiciary.

In 1992, as part of a major overhaul of the state court system, the Legislature approved the creation of a statewide juvenile court. Until that time, only Bristol County and three Massachusetts cities–Boston, Springfield, and Worcester–had separate juvenile courts to hear cases involving minors. Everywhere else, juvenile cases were heard by district court judges who would weave juvenile sessions into their week’s schedule of everything from small claims hearings to adult criminal cases.

“With all due respect to those district court judges who really cared about juvenile cases, those judges had a lot of other priorities that really required their attention,” says Limon, the Boston juvenile court judge. “All I have to be concerned about is juvenile cases, and I think that makes a world of difference.”

Since 1992, the number of juvenile court judges has more than tripled, from 12 to 37. They now hear cases in 48 locations across the state. Only Middlesex and Norfolk counties have yet to get their juvenile court systems up and running countywide.

To help judges in their rulings and recommendations, all juvenile courts have had court clinics since 1998. The clinics, set up in collaboration with the state Department of Mental Health, are staffed by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who provide evaluations of troubled youths who appear in court.

These moves–toward a juvenile court with on-site clinics statewide–are “an unsung success story,” says Jack Gately, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a network of juvenile justice organizations and professionals based in Boston.

But many of those involved in the juvenile justice system wonder whether the state has made the same commitment to providing the actual programs and services deemed appropriate by juvenile-court proceedings.

Advocates have particularly keyed in on so-called CHINS cases, which include juveniles who are chronically truant from school, runaways, and those whom a parent feels simply unable to control. These “children in need of services,” or CHINS, were once treated as if they faced delinquency charges and were subject to the same outcomes, including commitment to DYS. In 1973, Massachusetts “decriminalized” these behaviors, and permitted parents, police, or school officials to instead petition the court for help.

As the statewide juvenile court system has added new judges and courts, the number of CHINS cases has risen, up 23 percent from 1991 to 1999, when there were a total of 7,651 CHINS cases statewide. Many believe the increase reflects the heightened visibility of the juvenile court‹and a greater willingness to seek its help–rather than any sudden spike in the actual number of troubled children. Says Juvenile Court Chief Justice Martha Grace, “It is very much like a ‘Field of Dreams’–if you build it, they will come.”

But when they come, what do they get?

In a report released last year, Citizens for Juvenile Justice declared bluntly, “The CHINS system is failing.” The group said a lack of resources to provide services to CHINS kids and inadequate coordination of services among various state agencies left many juveniles destined to migrate from truancy and other minor misbehaviors into full-fledged delinquent acts that will land them in court. The group pointed to a 1998 study by the state’s Commissioner of Probation, which tracked all 6,548 CHINS cases in the state in 1994. The report found that 54 percent of these youths were arraigned for juvenile delinquent or adult criminal offenses within three years of their first CHINS petition.

Grace acknowledges that there have been holes in the delivery of services, but says the state agencies responsible are starting to pull together better. “I think things are working,” says Grace, though she adds, “They’re not perfect.”

Others on the front lines, however, paint a more troubling picture. “I see a breakdown in the service-delivery system,” says Judge Jay Blitzman, of the Lowell Juvenile Court. “We’re talking about kids we want to deter from becoming youthful offenders or getting committed, who are crying out for help, who have demonstrable service needs, and we’re not doing a good enough job of addressing those very real problems.” (See “Trauma, despair come through in juvenile court” sidebar story)

No Vacancies, Except For Teachers

Other parts of the juvenile justice system also show signs of strain. The numbers of juveniles being placed on probation increased dramatically in the late 1990s, even as youth crime rates were level or dropping. The number of Massachusetts juveniles on probation ranged between 3,020 and 3,322 in the first five years of the decade, but then rose markedly in the second half of the ’90s, with 4,830 youths under court supervision by the end of 1999.

The figures reflect an increased willingness to order probation monitoring of lower-level offenders, say some observers. That’s a positive move toward greater intervention and accountability, particularly in courts where probation officers have learned to be creative problem solvers. But does it mean we are squeezing a system to do more without giving it the resources to do anything well?

“Aerobic probation” is what Robert Nagle, a juvenile probation officer at Dorchester District Court, calls his work. Nagle says that with the 50 cases he is carrying he could “easily get a job at the Barnum & Bailey circus doing a juggling act.” Strong links between the Dorchester court and various youth-service programs in the community mean Nagle has lots of places to turn for help with the juveniles he supervises. But he could do more for them, if there were fewer on his plate, he says. “I wouldn’t be here right now if things were reasonable, case-wise,” he says, finishing up paperwork at 7:30 p.m. on a work day he started at 8:30 that morning.

DYS is struggling to keep pace, too. The 40-bed Worcester Secure Treatment facility was at double its capacity in early November, with 40 juveniles camped out on the center’s gymnasium floor. “The secure facilities are booked,” says Worcester County Juvenile Court Judge Luis Perez. “There’s no room at the Hilton.” DYS has plans to add another 95 beds statewide over the next year.

Last June, in a ceremony that underscored the potential for positive change that can take place within DYS, seven teenagers confined at the Connelly Youth Center in Boston were awarded high school diplomas and GED certificates. Harvard University professor Cornel West delivered the keynote address to the graduates, as proud family members and staff looked on. “Muster the courage, vision, determination, and discipline to cut against the grain,” West told them.

But the inspirational scene belied another problem brewing in the state’s juvenile justice system. The challenges of educating DYS youths are compounded by inadequate staffing levels and woefully low teacher salaries that leave as many as 30 percent of the system’s teaching positions vacant at any given time.

Nearly half the DYS population is in need of special education services, and the rest arrive with widely varying skill levels. Records from school systems where youths may have attended class only sporadically are often incomplete. And even within DYS, youths move in and out of various programs throughout the year.

But DYS teachers–all of whom must meet state certification requirements–are being asked to make learners of these youths at starting salaries of $23,000 to $26,000 a year. That’s for a year-round position without a summer break. The result is predictable: rampant turnover. “It is very difficult to deliver any kind of quality instruction if you do not retain quality, trained staff,” says DYS education director Rose Milas.

The problem is so severe that last year the Legislature appropriated $30,000 for a study to examine the issue of teacher salaries and retention rates in DYS. The report is due to be submitted in February, but there is little suspense over its expected findings. The question, says former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Haley, who inserted the study into the state budget, is whether the report will prod lawmakers to approve a significant increase in next year’s DYS budget to support increased teacher salaries. The premise of the juvenile justice system is that young offenders can be turned around to lead productive lives, and “at the core of that is a good education,” says Haley. “It is imperative that we respond to that need.”

Haley’s plea is one that could be directed at almost any part of the state’s juvenile justice system. Whether it’s the statewide juvenile court, the problem-solving approach to legal defense at the Youth Advocacy Project, or the community-based supervision of DYS, the state has put into place the scaffolding of a comprehensive response to juvenile delinquency. But the system seems to be suffering from a lack of will and resources to finish the job.

“I see a lot of good things. I see a lot of good intentions,” says Dohan, of the Youth Advocacy Project. “But I also see a lot of good kids falling through the cracks that don’t really have to.”

Trace that problem to politics. There is no forceful constituency demanding more of the juvenile justice system. In the absence of a new wave of youth crime, it will be too easy to ignore the deficiencies in the state’s juvenile justice system. And if we wait until a new crisis is upon us, it will be too late.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Massachusetts is so much ahead of other states,” says Krisberg, of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. But with the trend in other states toward a seemingly futile, harshly punitive system of juvenile justice, being better than most may not be good enough.

CommonWealth coverage of criminal justice is funded in part by the Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation.