Q and A With Shay Bilchik: September 2011

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Shay Bilchik

From Punishment to Treatment

Shay Bilchik is the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University Public Policy Institute. The center educates policymakers and public agency leaders on the key components of a strong juvenile justice reform agenda, which ideally occurs across systems of care and levels of government.

Before founding the center, Bilchik was president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America. His career also included heading the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice, and serving as an assistant state attorney in Miami.

He recently talked with State Legislatures about the past, present and future of juvenile justice.

SL: Why is juvenile justice reform garnering so much attention from state policymakers?

Shay Bilchik: State legislators can influence policies around preventing and reacting to juvenile delinquency. Given what we now know about what works—personalized, proportional, and often community-based responses—we can be more effective than we were 20 years ago. The generation of super predators we worried about in the 1990s didn’t materialize, but jurisdictions across the country had adopted “get tough” policies and built a lot of secure institutions. Fortunately, our knowledge base around effective practices grew and many of those institutions are now empty. Many policymakers now invest in community-based programs, where youth get the services they need in nonsecure settings, including their own homes, with a responsible adult to guide them and wrap services around them.

SL: Community-based diversionary programs seem to be replacing the “zero-tolerance” paradigm. Can you briefly explain the concept of diversion?

Bilchik: The underlying premise is that you shouldn’t kill a fly with a sledgehammer. With diversion, youth who commit less serious offenses (e.g., petty theft or fighting in school) don’t go through the formal juvenile justice system and end up with a delinquency record. Instead, they own up to what they did and receive a punishment that is proportional to their actions. For example, they might perform community service, pay restitution or write an essay. This also provides us with the opportunity to look at other things happening in the youth’s life and ask whether this behavior is the sign of other, more serious problems developing? Is the youth experiencing some challenges and acting out? If so, we can both hold them accountable and set up appropriate supports.

SL: Do diversion programs let kids “off the hook” for their actions?

Bilchik: Diversion programs hold youth accountable for their delinquent behavior but avoid some of the negative, long-term consequences of bringing them into the system. Youth who are arrested and formally prosecuted often carry with them the label of being the “bad” kid. Once labeled, they often wear their record as a badge of honor that pulls them away from pro-social influences in their school and community. Some also experience disruption of the family that is often already under stress. Research shows that, when we don’t overreact to the offense, we achieve as low or lower recidivism rates.

SL: Are community-based diversion programs cost-effective?

Bilchik: Community-based programs are very cost-effective. The costs to house a juvenile in a secure facility range from about $35,000-$100,000 per year, but effective community-based diversion programs cost substantially less, and when targeting the right youth, have just as good or better outcomes. These savings can then be reinvested in other community prevention and youth development programs that help to keep youth out of the system altogether.

SL: Speaking of prevention, are there risk factors that put young people on a path to offending from a young age? How does understanding these factors lead to better treatment of their issues?

Bilchik: Yes, one example is exposure to child abuse and neglect. We need to work effectively with these children and youth while they are in the child welfare system and, if they start to act out, we need to assess, plan, and manage behavior across systems so that they do not end up penetrating deeply into the juvenile justice system.

Preventing teen pregnancy and ensuring that young women and men are really prepared to be parents is essential in preventing an intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect. Cost-effective home visiting programs provide teen moms with the supports and information necessary to prevent child abuse and neglect, delay second births, and help these young mothers get their lives back on a positive course. Fifteen years later, the children of teen moms are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

Many youth coming into the system have co-existing mental health and substance abuse issues. We need behavioral health systems that can respond to these needs for young people in or outside the system.