Judges can do enormous good if they look at what works for juveniles


By Judge Steven Teske

Champions for change is key to reform. No champions, no change.

No matter the number of evidence-based programs we identify, and the best approaches and models to deliver them, they are meaningless unless someone calls attention to them.

And when all else fails, the law must be changed to force leaders to lead.

Mandating change is sometimes necessary because leadership is like a flashlight — what we see depends on who is holding the flashlight. Not all leaders direct the circumscribed beam of light in the direction of what works.

When I created the School-Justice Partnership Model in 2003, which was grounded in judicial leadership, I made the mistake of assuming that all states encouraged their judges to use their expertise to engage the system to improve it. After all, my governor made it his vision to improve the adult and juvenile justice systems and recruited me, the chief justice of the state Supreme  Court and a judge on the state Court of Appeals to serve on the reform commission.

I shudder to think how little progress could have been achieved without active judicial involvement. That involvement shed light on not only on the constitutional and other legal peculiarities of a recommendation, but the historical and current operations of the very specialized and complicated system we call juvenile justice.

When Bart Lubow, then director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group of theAnnie E. Casey Foundation that manages the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), called me to offer a grant dedicated to the marketing and replication of the model in other communities (it was the JDAI model that inspired me to create this school-justice partnership model), it didn’t take long to learn that some communities will never benefit from this model in its original design because their judges can’t or won’t lead.

Many judges unrestrained by their canons and enlightened leaders have replicated similar outcomes using my model. The first was Judge Brian Huff of Birmingham, Alabama, who not only pointed his flashlight at my model, but encouraged others to do the same by showing that the model is replicable.

Take for example Presiding Judge James Burgess of Sedgwick County, Kansas (Wichita), who invited me to join him and his colleagues to discuss employing my model. After breaking bread and sharing some jokes and war stories, the judges asked me what was expected of them.

“To convene stakeholders,” I answered.

“Anything else?” one of the judges asked.

“No, unless you want to volunteer your expert thoughts why arresting kids on school campus for minor reasons is harmful,” I said.

Soon thereafter, I was back in Wichita along with my technical assistance team to help the stakeholders convened by Judge Burgess to develop a strategic plan to create a school-justice partnership agreement.

Later, a local newsletter announced their school-justice partnership, stating, “The group drew upon Judge Teske’s model, developing a memorandum of understanding for handling disruptive behavior without automatically arresting youth … There’s evidence that these efforts are already paying off … arrests at Wichita public schools have dropped by more than 50%.”

In fact, almost every jurisdiction we have assisted over the past seven years has experienced at least a 50 percent decline in school-based arrests within six months of the agreement.

Judge Elijah Williams of Broward County, Florida, enjoys sharing how he was once a “lock ‘em up judge” until he heard me deliver a keynote speech at the annual conference of the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Like Burgess, Williams asked us to help him do the same in Broward. After meeting with the stakeholders he convened, it was reported that by “Basing their initial vision off of the pioneering work of Judge Steven Teske in Clayton County, GA, this group of stakeholders have broadened the work and created a unique model through a few key tactics …”

The Broward stakeholders remained true to the model, which gives license to create a response matrix unique to the values and standards of the community and the creative imagination of the group. Inexorably, the “Early indicators show[ed] that not only are suspension and arrest rates dropping, but Black males are seeing the biggest drops, with a 29% reduction in suspensions.”

There are so many stories of judicial leadership, including the most recent, that “… endorse[ed] adapting the Teske Model for New Hanover and Pender Counties,” North Carolina, thanks to the leadership of Judge Jay Corpening.

Like Judge Williams, Judge Corpening had never heard of the “school-to-prison pipeline” until he heard me deliver a paper on my model published in the The Family Law Review at a conference in New York City.

In an interview, Judge Corpening described my presentation, saying, “The presentation struck a nerve with me. I thought about the kids who were being charged when they shouldn’t be charged … This reform would go much deeper than youth discipline, it would affect the entire school climate and classroom culture.”

And so we traveled again at the request of Judge Corpening and worked with the stakeholders he convened using his inherent convening authority. They followed the plan developed from our meeting resulting in an agreement.

Despite these great examples of judicial leadership, the proliferation of an evidence-based model is only as good as a judge’s decision to point the flashlight in the direction of what works. This sad realization has caused me to refine the model by expanding the scope of champions beyond the judicial.

And in so doing, many educators and law enforcement leaders have proven that effective leadership in juvenile justice can come from stakeholders we may least expect.

It’s not the flashlight that’s important.

It’s who’s holding it!

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. His essay first appeared on JJIE.org.

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