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By Kimberly Snodgrass
Almost three decades ago, Hillsborough County–home to Tampa, FL–was in the middle of a juvenile justice crisis.
The county’s youth detention centers were overcrowded. Its youth recidivism rates were high. And its law enforcement officers were required to make quick–and sometimes incorrect– assessments about the best course of action for youths, without assistance from mental health or social service experts.
But today, thanks to the establishment of groundbreaking juvenile justice reform, the landscape in Hillsborough County looks considerably different.
Hillsborough County opened the doors of a 24/7 center in 1993, designed to serve as the first point of contact for youth who had been arrested or who had a problematic school attendance record.
The center's goal? To identify youth needs and subsequently connect youth to appropriate community services. They called it the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC).
Hillsborough’s JAC: a gateway to holistic services and case management
Hillsborough’s JAC provided youth with a range of services, including truancy evaluations, abuse and neglect assessments, and mental health screenings.
“The youngsters entering the JAC [brought] with them multiple problems. Many ha[d] experienced trauma–either directly or by witnessing trauma in family settings,” says Richard Dembo, law professor at the University of South Florida and developer of the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center.
“Being able to identify problems early on and link to appropriate services can make a huge impact on the outcome of their life,” Dembo continues.
In Hillsborough County, youth who were referred to the center were assessed and assigned a low, medium, or high severity score to determine a plan of action.
The lowest level meant youth could return to the supervision of their parent or guardian. The mid-level meant youth were referred to community partners for services and treatment. And, although rare, the highest level meant that youth were placed in detention to await a court hearing.
For youth referred to community care, JAC staff followed up to see if youth and families had been connected to agencies that fulfilled their needs. This process required successful coordination between local agencies that had historically operated in silos. But ultimately, it improved the quality and appropriateness of referrals.
Through evaluation, the inaugural JAC was determined to be successful and, subsequently in late 1993, the Florida Legislature allocated funding for two additional centers across the state.
By 2009, the JAC model had spread outside the state with 20 juvenile assessment centers across the country.
Nearby juvenile assessment centers
The first juvenile assessment center in Michigan was founded in 2007 in Wayne County.
The center implemented a system called JIFF (Juvenile Inventory for Functioning), an automated computer software assessment system for youth and parents.
Valid, reliable tests are crucial for identifying needs and connecting youth to care at local agencies, like the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network agency.
An evaluation of the Wayne County JAC’s first year showed promising results. The JAC’s adjudication rate–the rate at which youth had their cases reviewed by a judge–for youth with first-time offenses was only 7.7 percent.
A comparison between adjudicated youth who were assessed with JIFF and connected to care and adjudicated youth who had not been through the center demonstrated that the program decreased recidivism rates.
Further, county-wide youth probation costs were reduced by over half (53.1%). Overall, the program saved Wayne County more money than it cost.
Now, the Wayne County Juvenile Assessment Center is a customary procedural step for youths that are arrested by local law enforcement. The center serves as a safe holding place and a gateway for professional assessment, prevention, diversion, and rehabilitative services.
Other neighboring counties close to Washtenaw have also created JACs, including Greene and Lucas counties in Ohio, and Champaign County, in Illinois.
Juvenile Assessment Center arises as a top priority at a 2019 Washtenaw County retreat
Washtenaw County leaders began exploring the prospect of a Juvenile Assessment Center in 2019 during a youth services two-day retreat. Representatives from schools, police, courts, probation providers, youth, and community-based agencies convened to identify existing service system gaps and opportunities at critical points along the juvenile justice continuum.
The group identified five local needs:
1) to develop supportive housing programs for youth,
2) to include youth, family, and the community in both planning and implementation groups,
3) to develop a 24/7 drop off facility,
4) to develop a community-based, peer-to-peer system for supporting vulnerable youth and families, and
5) to develop a “first contact” youth assessment program.
The fifth identified need emerged because those at the mapping event agreed that Washtenaw County needed a systematic approach for arrested youth–an approach that would divert youth away from the justice system as an initial step.
“Now, the police officer has some say of what happens,” says Mike Langenright, program manager at Washtenaw County Children's Services, speaking about Washtenaw County’s current system. “[Officers] make a judgment call of what needs to happen, whether the kid needs to be taken into [juvenile] detention, whether there’s a family member the kid can go to, or whether the [kid] can be taken to community care, like a place such as Ozone [House].”
But officers don’t always have the training required to make those judgment calls. However, research shows that JACs can eliminate the need for officer discretion while assessing youth and family needs quickly and connecting families to needed care.
Millage leaders help further the exploration of a local JAC
In the summer of 2021, a $20,650 millage grant was used to pay for technical assistance from the National Assessment Center (NAC) Association to help Washtenaw County develop and implement a youth assessment center.
The NAC envisions youth assessment centers not only as the first point of contact for arrested youth, but also as a place school staff, local providers, and parents can refer kids to receive assessment and case management services.
“The school district is in desperate need of a service like this,” says Holly Heaviland, executive director of community and school partnerships at Washtenaw Intermediate School District.
“It’s hard for us [school social workers and staff] to keep track of all the services in our county. Every year, people try to put together a resource guide, but we can never keep up with the changing landscape of services and programs.”
And it’s not just about being aware of the resources available, Heaviland explains. It’s equally important to have a full understanding of the child and family's needs and provide case management and a warm handoff to services.
Because JACs can provide evidence-based, standardized assessments, coupled with individualized referrals, case planning, and follow-up, the centers can effectively connect youth to appropriate care.
Through the NAC, county leaders like Heaviland have attended a series of webinars where they heard from staff at other JACs and learned best practices for development and operationalization. In the future, the NAC will help Washtenaw County leaders navigate the logistics of center development.
Juvenile Assessment Center is a step toward reform and away from punitive measures
“For many people, they come on the criminal or juvenile legal systems’ radar because they are struggling with either a behavioral health issue, a mental health issue, or a substance use issue,” says Eli Savit, the prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County.
“If we can build off-ramps that avoid saddling someone with criminal justice involvement and, instead, address what’s going on their lives,” continues Savit, “not only can we get that person back on the right path, but we can also make our community safer because that problematic behavior won’t escalate into something more serious.”
Washtenaw County has recently implemented numerous justice reforms. County leaders have expanded re-entry services for people exiting the jail, strengthened relationships between the Sheriff’s Office and Community Mental Health, implemented policies to expunge records, decriminalized the possession of medications used to treat opioid use disorder, and more. However, few of these policies are specifically focused on juvenile justice reform.
“It’s really important to start young because it's frequently when we see people begin the path down the wrong road,” says Savit. “Early intervention can shift someone’s life in a positive direction."
Langenright hopes early intervention could enable the county to further reduce incarceration.
“I feel like we're really close to a spot where the reasons you would have a kid in [juvenile] detention are infinitesimally small,” says Langenright. “I don't think you can eliminate crime necessarily, but I think that if you give kids and families resources, then the reasons for detention are only very serious.”
Savit envisions a center that would not only provide assessments and referrals to care but would also facilitate opportunities for positive youth involvement within the community.
He says the prosecuting office now has a partnership with Washtenaw My Brother’s Keeper’s Formula 734 program. The partnership provides an opportunity for justice-involved youth to receive mentorship while contributing to hip-hop albums, using real-life experiences like racism or trauma to inspire the production.
Savit hopes an assessment center might one-day fuel relationships with similar programs that would engage youth with a wide variety of interests.
While Washtenaw County’s youth assessment center is in the very early stages of development, leaders like Savit, Heaviland, and Langenright believe that it's worth serious consideration. It’s a program that has the potential to allow Washtenaw County to realign how the juvenile justice system operates–making it more restorative, youth-orientated, and ultimately, encouraging resiliency and positive community involvement in youth.