This article is part of Shared Justice’s Opportunity for Transformation series running throughout June. The series will explore one of the most urgent areas for reform within the juvenile justice system: juvenile probation. It will introduce readers to juvenile probation, its flaws, and the opportunities for government and civil society to create a juvenile justice system that is more equitable, effective, and restorative.
KT: What brings you to this conversation? Why are young people who have contact with the justice system close to your heart?
ES: My first real job out of college was in a juvenile detention facility in Boston, operated by the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS). My mom was a lifelong educator. At that point in her career, she had chosen to teach inside this particular juvenile detention facility, which is not an easy task at all. The kids are coming and going, they’re different ages, different grades, different educational levels, they’re all in your classroom all at the same time, there’s behavioral challenges, and the kids don’t want to be there, so it’s a tough, tough job. I was graduating college, I was figuring out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go into the field of criminal justice or juvenile justice. I thought I was going to do urban planning and redevelopment work on physical infrastructure. I was 21. My mom was like, “Hey, I can help you get a job at this juvenile detention facility.” And at first, I balked at this. I thought to myself, “Well, I don’t want my mom to help me get my first job out of college.” … So I tested the waters in the job market, and I just came up short. So I came, my tail between my legs, back to my mom and basically said, “Hey, are those job opportunities still open?” She introduced me to the program director, and I interviewed and then they ended up hiring me to be frontline supervision. My job was to keep the kids from fighting, make sure that they abided by the rules, just kind of keep the peace. You’re basically physically in their room. It’s like a dormitory style. And if a kid breaks a rule, you let them know, give them a warning, that type of thing. … So I did that for a year, maybe two. I was apprehensive at first, because I really had this misconception that these were bad kids, that they were there for violent offenses. I grew up in a rough neighborhood in Boston, and was a victim of violence and stuff like that. So I thought to myself, I don’t necessarily want to work with these same kinds of kids who terrorized me throughout my adolescence. When I got there as a 21-22 year old, with these 14-year-old children, I realized pretty quickly that they weren’t bad kids at all, but rather, they were just kids who lacked opportunity. All of us have made poor decisions, and they reminded me of myself when I was their age. I could have easily landed myself in a facility like that, but, by the grace of God, I didn’t. So I fell in love with the work, with this idea that these young people could overcome the obstacles in front of them. I thought, “Hey, I grew up in a similar neighborhood, and I was able to go on to college, despite having a lot of challenges in my adolescence. They can too.” I got excited about the potential that these young people had. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about them.
While I was working there, volunteer groups would come in to lead Bible studies. There were two groups that would come in and one was led by an older gentleman, and I would say he kind of preached at them. Then there was another group of young people in their 20s who were just full of energy. They used music and dance and theater and all that to illustrate the points they were making. The kids would run to the door to get in the second group. Now there’s nothing wrong with the first one, but the second one, I had never seen anybody communicate the gospel in such a relevant, unique, energetic way. I got excited about that. The gentleman who was running the Bible study said, “Well, we’re interested in training more people to lead Bible studies at other juvenile detention facilities, would you be interested?” I said sure. So I got trained, along with my prayer partner at my church, and we started a Bible study at another juvenile detention facility. All that to say, that was kind of my introduction to working with kids involved in the system. And I’ve really never stopped, it’s been 20 something years since that first job.
“There’s dramatic change going on in our juvenile justice system in this country.
My career has just totally shifted away from what I thought it would be. I started volunteering with that organization. Then there was an organization called Straight Ahead Ministries headquartered out of Massachusetts. They were founded in 1987, so 30 plus years of serving kids in lockup. They have a good level of credibility in the space. There’s not that many organizations doing faith-based work with kids in lockup. In 2003, while I was volunteering, I got invited to a meeting with some potential funders …They interviewed a group of staff and volunteers about what we did and where there were opportunities for growth. And as a result of that meeting, a decision was made to fund Straight Ahead and include Straight Ahead as part of this national demonstration project. And the first of its kind, it’s called Ready for Work … So in 2004, after a lot of prayer, they hired me full time … Straight Ahead’s bread and butter is leading Bible studies inside facilities. But the hard part is when they’re released, they go back to communities, and at that point they call it aftercare. But since then, it’s been about reentry. So along with this infusion of resources, we built a reentry program from the ground up, we hired staff and got an office space in Boston. We had really good results; we were able to help a lot of young people successfully transition back from lockup and help them work towards their educational goals and employment goals and match them with mentors. Several of them went on to college and so forth. And we had some sad times, too, we had some of them shot or killed or receive long sentences and that type of thing. But that kind of comes with the territory. It was a great time innovating and learning from our peers across the country as part of this demonstration project. We learned firsthand what it really took to assess for need and develop a reentry plan and implement and establish partnerships in the community, and so forth. And we developed this concept we called “the in and the out,” which was our belief that if you begin to work with a young person, before they’re released and develop rapport in that relationship, that when they’re out, that kind of relationship just carries over. It’s a much smoother transition, and there’s trust and credibility that’s built, as opposed to trying to enroll that young person when they’re out.
And so, in 2010, I was asked by that same prayer partner, Joshua DuBois, who started the Bible study with me in 2003, if I was interested in coming to DC to serve in the Obama administration and take what I had learned in Boston and bring it to Washington, DC. [Seven years after our Bible study, Josh] had gone on to work for Senator Obama and then on the Obama campaign and then to be appointed director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office. So that’s what I did and worked on reentry policy in grants and Youth Violence Prevention projects for five years when I was at DOJ.
As it currently stands, juvenile probation is punitive in nature. Why should restoration be the goal of any reform?
It’s interesting, when the juvenile justice system was created in the United States, I think it was birthed in Massachusetts, there was a real effort to make a distinction between children who are involved in the justice system and adults and that children should be treated differently, there’s different precautions that need to be put into place. And really, that the goal of the system should not be punitive, it should not be punishment oriented as much as it should be restorative. And so terms, like instead of saying that a young person is “convicted of a crime,” in a juvenile setting, a young person is “adjudicated delinquent.” Instead of saying you’re going to “serve your time in prison,” it’s more that you’re going to a “treatment facility.” The idea is that these young people are still children, they’re still amenable to change, and that the whole system should be designed not to be punitive. There is a certain level of accountability, but the focus should be on young people getting the help they need, and to address whatever issues lead them to come into contact with the system in the first place. Now, that’s the ideal. What happens in practice, in many places, is very different … But I always looked at it like this, these young people that come into the system could very well be my niece and my nephew, or younger brother, or younger sister, or like I said, it could have been me. And when you think about it from that perspective, if your child or your niece or nephew, or grandchild for that matter, made a bad decision, shoplifted, ended up in a stolen car, was in a fight, or something like that. If they ended up in a system, how would you want your family member to be treated? Would you want them to get on a pathway towards restoration? Would you want them to get the help they needed? Counseling and support and mentoring, coaching, and so forth? So, I’ve always taken the viewpoint that when I look at a young person in the system, I see them as an extension of a family member. I ask how would I want my niece or my nephew, younger brother or sister to be treated? Yes, there’s something to be said about taking responsibility for your actions and being accountable and correcting. When I think about this whole term of corrections, a lot of state prison systems are referred to as the Department of Corrections. Even that is correcting behavior, correcting thinking patterns that can lead to being disruptive, and so on, at its best, systems should be a place where young people can have time to think about their lives, think about what led them to where they are. And at our best as adults, we should remember that these are children, all the brain science is very clear. That they’re more impulsive, less culpable, they’re children, and so we should design systems and programs that are mindful of the fact that they have a whole life ahead of them for them to change and get on the right path and with the right intervention that’s very feasible. And we see countless examples of young people that have made a poor decision, rebounded, got the support they needed, and are doing extraordinarily well.
Why do any reform efforts need to include and engage a young person’s family?
Children are raised in families, and they live in families before their time in the system and after. It’s really important to do our best to engage parents and guardians, and siblings and all that, because they all play a part in that young person’s future. And so people call it different things, two gen[eration] approaches, or multi-generational approaches, or whatever. But the idea that you’re just trying to treat the young person in isolation, without equipping the parents and including them, and learning from them and empowering them, then you’re going to send that young person, who hypothetically has gotten all this good counseling and treatment, back into the same context that got them there in the first place. And so by having the parents as part of the team, you can get insight from them. They know their child better than anyone, really. They can identify opportunities to serve both the parents and the children. And then oftentimes, they have siblings, so we’re thinking about the impact of their siblings and incarceration and all that. I think it’s extraordinarily important to engage families early and often. And there’s some great examples of juvenile justice systems that are doing just that. The state of Virginia, where I live, is really invested pretty significantly in family engagement. Massachusetts, where I was born, also puts a big emphasis on engaging families as part of young people’s process through the system. I can’t say enough about how important it is to engage them.
What role can / should faith-based and community organizations play in transforming juvenile probation and promoting diversion?
We all play a role in making our communities safer, stronger, and healthier. There are these systems that are put in place to catch kids who essentially fall through the cracks and probation is one of them. But there’s other institutions and communities that are designed to support young people. Schools are one, but our churches, synagogues, mosques, and others are also, and so the reality is there are houses of worship and faith-based organizations in every community, in every neighborhood across the U.S. And all of them kind of share this common vision and common values of strong families, healthy communities. So when probation departments, or any other kind of public agencies, can figure out ways to partner with faith- and community-based groups, they’re well on their way to tapping into some really extraordinary resources that exist within those communities. So providing mentors, volunteers, employers, volunteer opportunities, physical space in classrooms, courses, and you name it, all those things that houses of worship, churches, and faith-based organizations do on a regular basis and have been doing as long as our country’s existed. I’d say over the past 20 years, there’s been a growing groundswell of support and training within houses of worship and faith-based communities to recognize that “Hey, serving the least of these means our brothers and sisters who come in contact with the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system.” I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless pastors and leaders across the country that care deeply about people impacted. And there’s all kinds of exciting models like the Amachi program out of Philadelphia, started by former Mayor Wilson Goode, and they’ve just done extraordinary work serving as mentors for young people in crisis. Every city, in every community across the country has compassionate people that would, if tapped right, be a great mentor, a great source of support for young people.
In addition to advocating for reforms that are specific to the juvenile justice system, why is it important to also address the systems and structures in communities that perpetuate inequality?
I’ll go at this from a couple different angles. One is just thinking about the influence, opportunity, and responsibility that faith leaders have to speak truth to power. And you see that in many, many communities across the country where the chief of police will have an advisory group or something like that, or the head of corrections or probation, there’ll be faith leaders that make up these advisory groups or these governing boards. I think that’s really important. You’ll see faith leaders and ecumenical groups who are calling for reform and letter writing and collecting signatures, and all those things. I think a call for justice has long been something that the faith community has been at the forefront of dating back to abolition and the Civil Rights movement, and even now calls for criminal justice reform. So I don’t think it’s anything new, but it’s important, and I think sometimes, as faith leaders, we might hesitate because we wonder if it’s just our responsibility to teach the Bible or is social justice a bad word or something like that. And I think there’s a way to do both. And it’s important. When it comes to systematic contributors to inequities and stuff like that, I think certainly calling for improved schools or additional resources because a young person’s educational success is probably one of the highest indicators of whether or not they’re going to be involved in systems in the juvenile justice system, or even the adult system. It’s been said that when people build prisons, they look at a community’s third grade reading level. That’s how they determine how many beds they’re going to need 15 years later, which is pretty sad and unacceptable, but things like quality housing, making communities safe and viable, access to jobs and health care, and all those systematic environmental things are all things that faith communities can call for, can help contribute to, and their voices are super important and elected officials who are making these policy decisions oftentimes will listen to the voice of faith leaders in their communities because those votes are in the congregations. So I certainly think that it’s all of our responsibility to work towards safer, healthier, stronger communities, and faith leaders’ voices are critical to that conversation.
What next steps can people of faith, and especially young people, take to advocate for a more just and equitable juvenile justice system?
The first thing that comes to mind is for young people and old people to realize that anyone who works for local, state, county, or federal government works for the people and should be accountable to the people. No matter what level they are, whether you’re the president of the United States, vice president, governor, mayor, county executive, police chief, fire chief, superintendent of schools, those people are just what their title says, they are public servants, and they serve the public. And so if you’re in your 20s or 30s, and you’re thinking about, “Hey, how can I make a change?” Your voice, whether it’s writing a letter, whether it’s making a phone call, whether it’s attending a meeting, whether it’s proposing some sort of alternative, innovative solution, get involved …Just know that your voice is just as important as anyone else. [In Scripture] it’s Timothy that says just because you’re young, don’t let that hold you back. I think young people who are young and exuberant and have energy and want to see change have always been the ones to make change. Dr. King when he was leading the Civil Rights movement wasn’t an old man, Jesus wasn’t an old man. Jesus would be a millennial in this day and age. So take this opportunity when you’re young to make a change that will last a long time. So yeah, I’m excited about this generation, excited about how, particularly this past year, young people hit the pavement to call for change in a real, multi-ethnic way. And we’re seeing it, we’re seeing change. And that’s really because of young people more so than anyone, so I’m excited, and keep it up.
There’s dramatic change going on in our juvenile justice system in this country, COVID-19 was a big precipitator of it, but calls for alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs and other reforms have been called for by JDAI [Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative] at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others for decades. And we’re now seeing these changes occur in jurisdiction after jurisdiction across the country, things like raising the age of accountability. In some jurisdictions, you could be charged as an adult at 16 and sentenced as an adult, I think back to when I was 16 the poor decisions I made. And all the brain science says that [adolescent] brains don’t fully form till 25. So these calls for thinking about this 18 to 24 year population differently is exciting to me. And just the raw numbers, when I started doing this work, back in 2001, there were probably 100,000 juveniles incarcerated in the United States. Just as recently as a few years ago, that number had dropped to about 50,000. So a 50% reduction, which is amazing and important and significant. And with COVID-19, the numbers have even dropped, with probably 20,000 to 30,000 young people incarcerated on any given day in the US. So we’re talking significant reductions, we’re talking facilities closing, downsizing. And there’s real conversations about how we should strategically invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration. How do we take the savings that we’re seeing from these huge facilities? In some places, I think in New York state it costs $200,000 a year to incarcerate a young person. What could you do with $200,000 per young person, right? It’s way more expensive to send a young person to a juvenile facility in New York, in any state, than to send a young person to Harvard University. So, catalyzed by the global pandemic, how are we, at this point in time, rethinking and reimagining our juvenile justice system? Can we use ankle bracelets in the way that we have over the past year where a young person is in home confinement? What other kinds of alternatives? Think about in New York state, you can be arrested in New York City, but incarcerated in Rochester, New York, which is eight hours away, which makes it virtually impossible for family members to see that child during the terms of their incarceration. And then the states that are bigger than New York, like Texas, and California, where those distances are even further. And so thinking about reinvesting resources in local communities, where these young people are, saving money on corrections costs, and investing in community and faith-based programs that have been proven to be effective, that are restorative in nature, is really what I’m excited and hopeful will be our next challenge.
Eugene Schneeberg is an award winning and sought after speaker and trainer. Eugene is an expert at providing trainings in the fields of fatherhood, prisoner reentry, youth violence prevention & faith based partnerships. Eugene provided strategic advice to the White House Office and the US Department of Justice after being appointed by President Barack Obama as the Director of Faith Based Partnerships for the Justice Department.
Eugene led DOJ’s efforts as part of the President Obama’s Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, and the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. This resulted in over $30 million dollars in new grants for Juvenile Justice Involved Young Fathers and an increased focus on Empowering Parents within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Eugene co-chaired the Obama Administration’s efforts to support and improve outcomes for Children of Incarcerated Parents. He helped lead the Attorney General Eric Holder’s Federal Reentry Council. He helped expand DOJ’s Youth Violence Prevention efforts helping to build the capacity of more than 30 major US Cities to combat youth violence.
Eugene serves as the Director for the Every Youth Every Facility Coalition (www.EveryYouth.org)
Eugene has received numerous awards, authored several articles and has addressed hundreds of audiences. He has appeared on ABC, CBS and has been quoted and referenced in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Christian Broadcast Network and many other news outlets.
Katie Thompson is the Program Director of Shared Justice, the Center for Public Justice’s program for Christian college students and young adults. In 2015 Thompson co-authored Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice with Michael Gerson and Stephanie Summers. She also serves on behalf of CPJ as a steering committee member of Faith for Just Lending, a coalition dedicated to ending predatory payday lending. Thompson holds a Master’s of Public Policy from The Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University.