There's never enough 'for the sake of our children' - Steve Teske

Clayton County is on the move in so many good ways, and one of those ways is juvenile justice. I was invited by the chairman of the U.S. House Congressional Committee on Education and Labor to testify, last week, before the full committee on what Clayton County has done to receive national prominence in juvenile justice.

The chairman and ranking member of the committee called six "expert" witnesses to testify about the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which provides funding to states for juvenile justice programs. If reauthorized, states will continue to receive funding to aid in the effort to prevent, and treat, delinquency in local communities.

Clayton County stands to gain from the reauthorization of JJDPA, because the gains over the past several years are the result of funds received from JJDPA. In 2003, the juvenile court applied for, and received, funding to develop the nationally renowned Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) program. This program is grounded in collaboration between all stakeholders –– private and public –– who serve youths in Clayton County.

By exercising judicial leadership, former Juvenile Judge Tracy Graham Lawson –– now district attorney –– and I dramatically reconfigured the juvenile justice system by exercising our authority provided in the law to negotiate written agreements that link agencies, so they can communicate more effectively and provide a more efficient delivery of services. The juvenile justice system includes many different individual systems that, oftentimes, work in isolation, using their own sets of rules, and budgets. The juvenile court, however, is the intersection of the juvenile justice system, and the juvenile judge is the traffic cop. It is the judge's responsibility to engage the stakeholders to improve the system, and the funding from JJDPA helped make this happen.

The FAST panel is dedicated to reviewing the circumstances surrounding the detention of youths, and seeking safe alternatives to detention, and appropriate treatment services in the community. We also worked to reduce the number of school infractions referred to the court. Previously, more than one-third of the referrals were for low-level infractions that increased probation caseloads, which in turn, reduced the amount of supervision for the youths who actually needed closer supervision and stricter measures.

In lieu of arresting youths for minor school-yard incidents, another multi-disciplinary panel was created to assess, and develop, alternatives for students who are disruptive in school. This "single point of entry" for at-risk youths helped to reduce the out-of-school suspensions and school arrests. Consequently, graduation rates began to increase, resulting in a decrease in the juvenile felony rate. Keeping kids in school is directly proportional to the increase in graduation rates, which in turn, is directly proportional to the decrease in serious juvenile crime.

This collaborative system that invites other jurisdictions to regularly visit our county, including the upcoming delegation from the former Russian state of Tajikistan, has promoted the welfare of young people and enhanced the safety of the community. However, I would be remiss if I failed to say that long-term detention is necessary for some youthful offenders, who have entrenched themselves in a very scary lifestyle –– that is, criminal street gangs.

There is a tipping point for some youths –– albeit a minority –– whose involvement in a gang, coupled with assaultive behavior, necessitates removal from the community. In the last two weeks alone, I sentenced six kids to a youth prison to serve 4 or more years. We have come a long way in reducing unnecessary detentions of many young people, but, sometimes, community safety requires incarceration for some.

For the sake of these six kids, we must support the reauthorization of JJDPA. Continued funding is needed to increase our efforts to develop after-school activities and other successful programs that could save our children from gang involvement and incarceration.

Our reputation is built upon the partnerships involving the court, the school system, DFACS, the Clayton Center, Clayton County and municipal police departments, the sheriff, the district attorney, the solicitor general, the county commissioners, and many more, working together to serve youths and their families. We cannot afford to stop improving our system of care for kids in this county, and we need continued funding to make this happen.

We should never get smug in our accomplishments as long as kids are still shackled like animals and shipped away. Never!

Steve Teske is a Clayton County Juvenile Court judge, chairperson of the Governor's Office for Children and Families, and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee that advises the president and Congress on juvenile justice.