UCLA Researchers Seek Juvenile Justice Alternatives for Children Under 12 UC study indicates that a minimum-age standard is needed to protect California children from prosecution in the juvenile court system

By Stan Paul

Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, left, and Laura Abrams. Photo by George Foulsham

Although Laura Abrams and Dr. Elizabeth Barnert come from opposite ends of the UCLA campus, their work in their respective academic professions meets at the intersection of health and juvenile justice.

A recent University of California study led by Abrams, professor of social welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, offers a powerful rationale for shielding children 11 years old and younger from prosecution and incarceration in the state’s juvenile justice system.

“Children in the juvenile justice system literally meet the definition of children with special health care needs,” said Barnert, who worked with Abrams as members of a team affiliated with the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Consortium. Prior to their study, which was recently published in International Journal of Prisoner Health, the issue in California was not on anyone’s radar, they said.

“Kids in conflict with the law are kids that typically have unmet health needs. We see a lot of undiagnosed depression, ADHD and learning disabilities — or absentee parents who can’t support their children due to working three jobs, deportation, imprisonment or substance abuse,” Barnert said. “When we prosecute these children or lock them away, we’re putting them in a system that traumatizes them further and often makes their problems worse.”

The UCLA study brought together UC experts from social welfare, medicine, psychology and psychiatry, law and criminology, as well as community partners from organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund-California and the National Center for Youth Law.

“Our findings provide a rationale for why California should have a minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system and why children 11 and younger should be excluded,” Barnert said. “The study recommendations are based on international human rights standards, guidelines from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatricians, and medical evidence that children’s brains do not fully mature until their mid-20s.”

Added Abrams: “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has established a standard on children in conflict with the law. The convention states that every country should have a minimum age of criminal responsibility, or what we refer to as a minimum age of juvenile justice jurisdiction. The United States does not have this type of law at the federal level, however, so it is up to the states to determine.”

Abrams pointed out that protections for minors already built into current state law are based on the capacity or the intent to commit a crime, as well as the competency to stand trial. California’s 58 counties, however, set many of their own juvenile probation standards. Therefore, “there’s no way to insure, without a minimum-age law, that state laws around capacity and competency are being implemented fairly and without geographic or racial disparities. There is no statewide oversight of these mechanisms for protecting children,” Abrams said.

Findings and recommendations from the UC study and related policy briefs prepared by the researchers include:

  • Children should be held less culpable under criminal law, given their expected developmental immaturity, as repeatedly recognized in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • Children have a diminished capacity to make intentional decisions regarding participation in crimes or to understand that an act was morally wrong.
  • Children have less developed abilities to understand court proceedings and meaningfully participate, emotionally or cognitively, in working with attorneys to wage their own defense.

California currently has no law that specifies a minimum age for prosecuting and imprisoning minors. But a new state senate bill, SB 439, which incorporates the research and recommendations in the UC study, would change that by amending sections 601 and 602 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code related to juvenile court jurisdiction. In particular, the bill would substitute current references to “any person under 18 years of age” with language specifying individuals “ages 12 to 18.”

In its first hearing on April 4, the senate’s committee on public safety passed the bill, which was then referred to the senate appropriations committee, the next step in the legislative process. The bill is part of a package of criminal justice reform bills put forth by the legislators in March.

Proposed amendments and revisions to SB 439 can be found online.

Just One Visit: Volunteers Make a Difference for Prisoners UCLA Luskin professor’s book launch highlights little-known but vital role that volunteers play in the juvenile and adult prison system

By Stan Paul

Just one visit. For those whose lives are entangled in the pipeline of the juvenile and adult justice systems, the life-changing meeting might come from a family member. It could be a psychologist. Or a chaplain. Or it could never come at all.

For many, though, the visitor is a volunteer — someone who can make the difference between continuing a downward spiral through the criminal justice system and turning a life around.

“The cycle continues until someone breaks it,” said Ernst Fenelon Jr., who was part of a Nov. 3 panel speaking about volunteers who help those incarcerated in America’s juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. The event also launched a new book co-edited by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams. It was sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Department of Social Welfare, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, and the UCLA Justice Work Group.

New book co-edited by UCLA's Laura Abrams.

New book co-edited by UCLA’s Laura Abrams.

The book, “The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change,” was published “to highlight many examples of great practice, of volunteer programs that make a real difference behind bars … and impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers,” Abrams said. She was accompanied by one of her three co-editors, Emma Hughes, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Criminology at California State University, Fresno.

“This event, and the book itself, is intended to honor volunteers in jails and prisons, juvenile and adult institutions, who devote their personal and professional time, travel long distances and overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles to reach out to those locked on the inside, whose humanity and dignity is often limited by the very condition of incarceration itself,” Abrams said in her introductory remarks.

Abrams said that the work of her colleagues and co-editors highlights many examples of great practice, impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers as well. “Unfortunately, this evidence of good practice is not well-known, so other volunteers have to keep reinventing the wheel, rather than benefitting from the experiences of others,” she said.

The co-editors pointed out that volunteers themselves are very diverse. They may be formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, teachers, musicians, artists, students or people of faith. A unique feature of the book is that it includes the voices of a number of people currently serving time, in addition to the 19 contributing authors from the United States, Canada and Britain.

“You may be that one person,” said Fenelon, whose 25 years of experience with the California prison system includes more than 14 as an inmate. He is now the program coordinator for the Prison Education Project (PEP), a “prison-to-college” program that seeks to enhance the educational experience of inmates and parolees while providing practical tools for reintegration.

“You’re here because it is a calling,” Fenelon told the audience of academics, social welfare students and volunteers, some of whom also had been wards of the foster care, juvenile justice and adult prison systems in California. “The best people to speak are the volunteers,” continued Fenelon said. Like himself, they “speak from a voice of unique experience,” and “sat where they sat” and they strive to “reconnect [those incarcerated] to their humanity.”

He was joined by Rosalinda Vint, president of Women of Substance and Men of Honor Inc. Vint, who grew up in the foster care system, has been “that one person,” Hughes said in introducing her.

“All of us have a friend or relative touched by the system,” said Vint, whose nonprofit organization provides mentoring, leadership training and other services for the Department of Juvenile Justice Ventura Youth facility. The former corporate executive, who left a successful 25-year career to reach out to foster youth, said it is a privilege to serve those who, like her, have suffered abandonment and loss. Recounting her own and her siblings’ experiences within the foster care and criminal justice systems, Vint paused, as her voice cracked with emotion. She continued, “This has changed my life, what I do. I wish someone would have come for me, looked me in the eye and said it is going to be OK.”

The relationship between two of the event’s speakers, Felix Miranda and Matthew Mizel, is an example of the significant difference that volunteering can make in the lives of both volunteers and those they help.

Miranda was raised in Nicaragua and he “saw things that no kid should see.” He was angry when he came to the United States, eventually ended up in trouble and lost 13 years of his life to the prison system in California. Mizel, a native of New Jersey, had a successful career in the entertainment industry before becoming a volunteer with Inside Out Writers in 2003, teaching creative writing in juvenile and adult facilities.

They met while Miranda was imprisoned, and the experience was transformative for Mizel, who was volunteering with the nonprofit organization founded in 1996. Mizel is now a doctoral student in the Luskin School’s Department of Social Welfare, where his research focuses on ways to reduce racial inequality in the justice system.

“I had to grow out of that phase,” said Miranda, who was recently released from prison and is now a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). “You can make a change.”

Miranda said that at first he couldn’t understand why Mizel kept showing up to his prison visits, and more than once asked him why he would do this.

“He came every week — that’s what impacted my life,” said Miranda, who also is now a member of the Inside Out Writers alumni project. He credits Mizel “for the love and friendship he showed me,” and the writing program for the positive changes he experienced.

“Don’t just show up,” Miranda said about volunteers’ need for perseverance and engagement. “It’s the follow-up that matters.”

According to Hughes, the book is also intended to show correctional officials and policymakers how valuable this work is. “All too often volunteers are confronted with insurmountable hurdles in terms of red tape and bureaucracy when trying to access facilities.”

Hughes added, however, that she is encouraged by recent changes.

“I am heartened that this year, CDRC (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has a mandate to establish a volunteer advisory committee at every adult prison, with the intention of better supporting volunteer-led programs,” Hughes said.

The evening’s presentations also included a moving spoken word performance by Harry Grammar, who brought students from his New Earth Arts and Leadership Center, a comprehensive re-entry center serving 2,500 young people each year who are incarcerated in Los Angeles County detention centers and placement homes.

2016 California Voter Issues — A Lot More Than Just Hillary and Trump UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty members analyze the potential impact of a slew of state and local ballot initiatives

By Stan Paul

On issues that include condoms, juvenile justice reform and housing for the homeless, California voters will be making important decisions in Tuesday’s national election.

Judging from this year’s unusually hefty state voter’s guide, a lot of those issues will have a great deal of impact closer to home — it’s not just about Hillary and Trump.

“This election is more than just about the presidential election, which has taken all of the oxygen out of the political room,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Torres-Gil served as moderator at a faculty panel discussion held just a week before the general election.

Holding up a full-page news article listing the 17 propositions on the California ballot, Torres-Gil started the discussion highlighting a few key state and countywide initiatives and their impact on social work, justice and quality of life issues. “This does not end on Nov. 8; the issues continue,” he said, acknowledging California’s “extraordinary influence” on the rest of the country.

Voting can be good for you — and habit forming — according to new Luskin Social Welfare faculty member Laura Wray-Lake, encouraging the students in attendance to exert a bit of peer pressure.

“The election is obviously really interesting to me from a research perspective,” said the assistant professor, whose work focuses on youth civic engagement and draws on several disciplines to understand social development among young people.

“When young people start voting, this goes a long way to establishing lifelong habits,” Wray-Lake said. “So, if you get into the habit of voting, you will become a more habitual voter across your adult life, which is important for democracy and is important for you in terms of having your voice be heard.”

Citing Pew Research Center data, Wray-Lake said that there are now as many eligible millennial voters as baby boomers for the first time ever. This translates into millennials being one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. But, she pointed out, the potential of this powerful voting bloc is offset by the lowest voting rates across all generations. She said this had real implications in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, when youth voting influenced several swing states.

“If young people had voted at a slightly lesser rate, then Romney would have won the [2012] election,” Wray-Lake said. “Young people really carried Obama to victory.”

She cited a recent poll showing that 70 percent of young people have not been contacted by presidential candidates. Candidates, she said, are putting campaign dollars where they think the reliable voters are, and they’re dismissing young people and their issues, including education, poverty and the environment.

On a positive note, Wray-Lake said that the voter registration rate in California has surged to the highest levels in modern history at almost 74 percent.

“That’s more registered voters in California than 46 other states combined,” she said. “You’ll do your demographic proud if you go to the polls,” pointing out that 10,000 new voters were recently registered on the UCLA campus.

Among the state’s initiatives with health implications is Proposition 60, which would add a condom requirement to the California Labor Code for the adult film industry. According to information provided in the voter guide, the primary argument for the proposal is that “Nobody should have to risk their health in order to keep their job!” Opposition to the proposal argues that it would be costly to voters, is opposed by lawmakers and is largely supported by a single special interest group.

Ian Holloway, assistant professor of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin, said that Proposition 60 had its origins in L.A. County’s Measure B last year — which passed — and is now being rolled out at the state level. Proponents say that Proposition 60 will stem the rise of HIV in California, said Holloway, whose applied behavioral health research looks at factors that contribute to health disparities among sexual and gender and minority populations.

“When it comes to the adult film industry, the majority of adult films that are distributed throughout the United States are made in California and the majority of films made in California are made in Los Angeles County,” said Holloway, who also directs the Southern California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center. He explained that there could be a significant economic impact because the adult film industry brings a lot of revenue to the state. He noted that one of the fears is that the making and distribution of adult films will move outside of the state if the proposition passes.

While the goal is to protect the health and well-being of adult film actors, Holloway said that many in the community feel that the proposition is misguided.

“When we think about the HIV epidemic in the state of California, we’re talking about 5,000 new infections a year that disproportionately impact gay and bisexual men and racial-ethnic minority communities,” Holloway said. “So, adult film actors, while an important constituency, are a very small proportion of HIV cases in California.”

Holloway argued that if there is a real interest in focusing on reducing HIV among people living in California, the focus should be making prevention technologies more accessible to low-income communities, racial-ethnic minority communities, gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and other sexual and gender minority communities.

“If we’re thinking about this as an HIV-prevention measure, then we have many more tools at our disposal besides condoms,” Holloway said.

Laura Abrams, professor of Social Welfare, has applied her research to improving the well-being of youth and young adults with histories of incarceration. She provided analysis of Proposition 57, which considers criminal sentences and parole as well as juvenile criminal proceedings and sentencing. The proposition, if passed, would make a change to the state constitution that would “increase the number of inmates eligible for parole consideration,” as well as “make changes to the state law to require that youths have a hearing in juvenile court before they can be transferred to adult court.”

“Prop. 57 means a great deal to juvenile justice reform in California,” Abrams said. “It would help to prevent many youth from being directly tried in the adult criminal court system, and instead allow them to go before a judge to determine if they are indeed fit to be tried as an adult.”

Abrams said that, without the previous process known as “direct file,” many youth will be more likely to be offered rehabilitation within the juvenile system instead of languishing in the adult prison system.

Proposition 57 would amend the state constitution to provide the possibility of parole hearings for nonviolent offenders who have served their minimum sentence and incentives toward release for adults within the state prison system who participate in education and rehabilitation programs.

“This likely means that county services will need to be more attuned to those who are released, often with long sentences behind bars and coming home on parole,” Abrams said, and that will have implications for those in the social work field.

“Social workers will need to be attuned to the trauma that people can experience with many years of imprisonment, mental health needs, and to develop appropriate housing, transition, and other types of programming,” Abrams said.

Finally, two Social Welfare faculty went head-to-head on Proposition HHH, a City of Los Angeles initiative that aims to provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

W. Toby Hur and Michelle Tally, members of Luskin’s Social Welfare field faculty, discussed the pros and cons of approving a $1.2 billion general obligation bond. It would be supported by a property tax levied on homeowners to create 10,000 affordable housing units over 10 years for the homeless, including veterans, senior citizens, foster youth and those living on the streets due to mental illness and disability.

Hur, whose interests include ethnic communities, poverty and homelessness, argued that a tax levied on L.A. homeowners would be less than $10 per $100,000 of the value of a home or $50 for a home valued at half a million dollars, although it would increase over subsequent years.

“Initially when I read Proposition HHH it sounded really good and something that I would support,” said Talley, whose interests are in child and family welfare, as well as domestic violence and substance abuse. “Then it talked about increasing property taxes.”

Hur sees minimal burden for homeowners, but Talley said the tax could greatly affect low- and fixed-income residents and even contribute to homelessness for “those who are barely making it,” she said.

“Fifty dollars may not be a lot to you, but there are a lot of people on fixed incomes,” Talley said. “So it’s $50 they would have to take from somewhere else — food on the table, daycare programs. You might potentially have other kinds of consequences.”

 

A Celebration of Volunteers in Prisons and Jails

abrahms

 

Join us in the launch of the book, “The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change.”  Speakers include authors Emma Hughes, Laura S. Abrams, Rosalinda P. Vint, Ernst Fenelon Jr., Matthew Mizel, Felix Miranda, and New Earth.

 

Register here

The Intersection of Social Welfare and Criminology New book co-edited by UCLA Luskin professor Laura Abrams gives a voice to volunteers, including prisoners, who donate their time to improving lives, changing the system and giving back to their communities

By Stan Paul

James Anderson has earned three college degrees, all of them in the Oregon State Penitentiary where he has been since he was 17. Also there is Joshua Cain, currently working toward his bachelor’s degree. And Trevor Walraven, like Anderson and Cain, is a longtime volunteer in prisoner empowerment programs. Now in their 30s, these members of the “Lifers Unlimited Club” at Oregon State Penitentiary are well into their second decade of incarceration, serving life sentences for crimes they committed as young men.

All three are contributors to a new book co-edited by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs social welfare professor Laura Abrams and her colleagues from the United States and the United Kingdom. The prisoners’ voices are included in “The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change,” published this month as part of the Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology series.

The book is a collection of scholarly articles looking at various dimensions of the voluntary sector’s influence on prison life. It includes analyses and examples of people who volunteer their time to help within the prison walls and in the larger community. It also examines the importance of the voluntary sector in reshaping the role of prisons and the services they provide as it relates to prison overcrowding and mass incarceration policies.

“We believe that the global and multi-authored nature of this collection, including two chapters co-authored with currently incarcerated men, is one of its unique strengths,” Abrams said. “To our knowledge, this is one of the few scholarly collections to consider the perspectives of prisoners themselves as volunteers, organizers and community change leaders.”

Citing research by Luskin colleague Michael Stoll and UC Berkeley co-author Stephen Raphael, Abrams noted that “currently there is increasing public and bipartisan governmental recognition in the USA that the war-on-drug policies have largely failed to halt crime or create a climate of public safety.” In addition, Abrams said that over the past several decades correctional facilities in the U.S. have become increasingly punitive and less rehabilitative — a trend that volunteers have always contested.

“As such, we are witnessing a significant shift toward beliefs long held in other nations — particularly in Western European and Scandinavian countries — that incarcerated people need education, skills and other forms of rehabilitation in order to succeed upon their release, and that humane treatment of prisoners may contribute to a more peaceful society as a whole,” she said.

The book is the result of a 2014 conference of doctoral students and faculty convened by one of the co-editors and contributors, Rosie Meek, chair of the School of Law at University of London Royal Holloway. “This relates to my research because so many correctional treatment and reentry programs are staffed and run by nonprofit organizations and volunteers. This book pulls together a study of social welfare systems with criminology — my two areas of scholarship,” Abrams said.

Chapters of the new book address the importance of community volunteers and nonprofit organizations in providing rehabilitative programming in prisons and jails, as well as what citizenship and democracy mean even in the prison environment. Other chapters focus on how prisoners, as volunteers, mentors and leaders, can contribute to their communities and the value and effectiveness of peer support in prison.

“I think most people wouldn’t know that prisoners themselves volunteer to help each other, and to help the community at large,” Abrams said. “This is really groundbreaking knowledge to include this material and their authorship.”

Laura Abrams

Professor Abrams’ scholarship focuses on improving the well being of youth and young adults with histories of incarceration. Her ethnographic studies have examined youths’ experiences of criminality, risk, and institutions seeking to reshape their identities through both therapeutic and punitive practices. These themes are presented in her 2013 book (co-authored with Ben Anderson-Nathe) Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, (Rutgers University Press). Her most recent book (c0-authored with Diane Terry) Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth (Rutgers University Press, 2017), examines how formerly incarcerated young men and women navigate reentry and the transition to adulthood in the context of urban Los Angeles. Dr. Abrams is also the lead editor of a 2016 multidisciplinary volume on the role of volunteers and non-profits in changing lives and promoting more humane conditions in prisons and jails: The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change (Palgrave, 2016).

Dr. Abrams is currently involved in several studies concerning juvenile justice, reentry, and transition age youth both locally and globally. She recently completed a four year evaluation of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Foster Youth Strategic Initiative in Los Angeles and New York City. The Institute on  Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin also funded a pilot  study on global youth justice models in four countries, examining how age and culpability are constructed in law and practice. She is also working with Dr. Elizabeth Barnert at UCLA Department of Pediatrics on a study of very young offenders, incarceration, and health, funded by the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Consortium and the UCLA Faculty Senate Transdisciplinary Seed Grant. Dr. Abrams is currently partnering with professor Laura Wray-Lake (social welfare) on a study of civic engagement among urban youth.

In the community, Dr. Abrams has served as an expert witness for death row appeals and in cases involving minors fighting their fitness to be tried as adults. She has provided public and congressional testimony regarding treatment in the juvenile justice system, the reentry needs of youth, and effective practices for the reintegration of reentry youth into the community. Serving the larger social work profession, Dr. Abrams  is a former vice-chair of the Group for the Advisement for Doctoral Education (GADE) and is currently a board member at large for the Society for Social Work Research. She serves on the editorial board of Social Service Review, Qualitative Social Work, and the International Journal of Social Welfare.

Professor Abrams teaches the following courses: SW 211B- Theory II; SW 285- Advanced Research Methods with Children and Youth; SW286- Qualitative Research Methods; SW 229: The Craft of Social Welfare Scholarship, and SW 290T: Juvenile Justice Policy.

You can follow Dr. Abrams on Twitter or the Facebook page for the Social Welfare Chair

Recent News Releases and Media Interviews:

Vera Institute of Justice: Everyday Desistance

Growing Pains of Formerly Incarcerated Youth 

GPS Rules Send California Juveniles Into a Jail Cycle

Jailed Indiana Teens Reach a Crossroads

MPR News On Abuse in a Private Juvenile Facility

Seeking Justice for Juveniles

More Protections for Juvenile Offenders are Before California Legislators

Take Two: Is Jail for Juveniles Effective in Preventing Future Crime?

Juvenile Arrests Plunged Last Year, why?

Expanding rehabilitation Programs under Federal Decree- NPR

The California Report: NPR