Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine
05 October 2010

Prevention is usually seen as stopping or interrupting the causes of impairments to human health or development. But what happens when the root of the problem is something sponsored by the state?

One such example is provided by the current operation of the juvenile justice system. As reported previously in Prevention Action, arresting young people increases anti-social behavior. Putting young offenders in groups, or categorizing them has the same effect. But society is extremely keen to arrest and lock up delinquents.

For two decades now, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has recognized this phenomenon and tried, somewhat effectively it seems, to do something about it.
One illustration is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). It is a program, applied in roughly half of US states, that reduces the number of young offenders locked up.

At first sight, JDAI may seem somewhat removed from the staple diet of programs that feature in Prevention Action. It is not an evidence-based program. It is not even an intervention that young people necessarily experience directly. Nonetheless, it may portend important future directions in prevention science and its application.

JDAI is a process which, when rigorously applied, helps jurisdictions safely reduce their use of juvenile detention. In plain terms, these are juvenile lock-ups, often used for relatively minor offenders and young people awaiting trial. Some object to these facilities on the grounds of human rights or legal due process. Others are simply concerned that they make us more vulnerable to crime not less.

JDAI has some similarities and some differences from evidence-based programs. There is a lot of attention to applying the program strictly as it was designed. The Casey program has been more thoughtful, and more successful, than most evidence-based programs when it comes to the question of how to scale the program up across a larger areas. Indeed, the methodology is now being applied in over half of US states with more joining each year.

There has, however, been less rigour when it comes to evaluation, and, naturally enough, the outcomes that JDAI seeks to achieve (for instance, to reduce the average daily population in detention) are rather strange to the eye of a prevention scientist.

Despite this, there is a reasonable degree of confidence in the finding that JDAI reduces the numbers of children in juvenile detention by at least a third. In the best cases, it halves the number. And all of this has been achieved in the context of the US’s love affair with custodial options.

By way of confirmation of Tom Dishion’s groundbreaking science, it turns out that locking fewer people up reduces crime. In the JDAI “model” in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; and Santa Cruz, California, arrests for serious violent offences have declined by between 27 and 46 percent. Commentators point out that violent crime is declining everywhere, but in Albuquerque and Santa Cruz the drop is twice the national average.

The virtuous circle of less detention at less cost resulting in less crime is a potent message in the current economic climate and is helping to undermine the American people’s perceived preference for prison. Some counties in New Jersey, which is implementing JDAI statewide, are saving $10 million a year with neighboring counties.

There are also important additional benefits. Since juvenile justice is disproportionately allocated to children from minority ethnic groups, reductions in detention disproportionately benefit those groups. The initiative has sponsored a wider range of initiatives into ways in which changes in programs can produce better outcomes for children.
Prevention Action will explore JDAI and its relevance to prevention science further in the coming days. We continue tomorrow with a profile of Bart Lubow, Director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E Casey Foundation.

Richard Mendel, Two Decades of JDAI: From Demonstration Project to National Standard, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2009



Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative

It is a product of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. There is evidence that JDAI lowers the use of juvenile detention, lowers serious crime and reduces taxpayer investment in youth justice.

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