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Setting an Agenda for Family-Focused Justice Reform

by Margaret diZerega and Jules Verdone (2011). Setting an Agenda for Family-Focused Justice Reform. New York: Vera Institute of Justice.

Family involvement in juvenile and criminal justice practice is perhaps especially important for mentally ill persons being supervised by pretrial or community corrections agencies or confined in detention, jail, or prison facilities. But it is also germane to others who are being treated through these systems. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has been influential in shaping the juvenile and criminal justice treatment of mentally ill persons, and other organizations, including the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, are steadily embedding themselves in the ongoing development of juvenile and criminal justice practices. Still, practitioners and practices inside and outside the juvenile and criminal justice systems should be brought closer together in the sharing of information about emerging interventions in their often separate domains.

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice does not specifically address mentally ill persons, but it provides useful "expert" perspectives on what is being done in various sections of the country to more readily involve family members with the justice system treatment of their sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, or grandparents or other relatives. In doing so, numerous dimensions of day-to-day practice are identified, opening the door for further initiatives, including those that are relevant for mentally ill persons. That said, some of the information provided in this report is also of use to mentally ill persons. Moreover, some practices or procedures currently used for the mentally ill are suitable for non-mentally ill persons, and they should be integrated into the larger discussion.

Margaret diZerega directs the Vera-based Family Justice Program and Jules Verdone is a writer in the agency's communications department. Together, they have prepared a helpful report on a one-day meeting on "family-focused justice reform" that brought together a tableful of national experts who discussed the role of family members in the development and implementation of practices that result in better outcomes for incarcerated persons while in confinement and when released back into their communities. diZerega moderated this discussion between eight participants, including Ann Adalist-Estrin (Director, National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated), Shay Bilchik (Director, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Georgetown University Public Policy Institute), Mike Bobbitt (Director, Fatherhood Initiative, New York City Department of Youth and Community Development), Rosa Cho (Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, Brown University), Laura Dolan (Bureau Chief of Facility Programs, Ohio Department of Youth Services), Michael Hayes (Director of Family Initiatives, Office of the Attorney General of Texas), Katayoon Majd (Program Officer, Public Welfare Foundation), and Bernie Warner (Director, Washington Department of Corrections). Three other experts were also interviewed by telephone for this report:  Grace Bauer (Field Organizer, Campaign for Youth Justice), Norris Henderson (Director, Voice of The Ex-Offender), and Justin Jones (Director, Oklahoma Department of Corrections).

Discussion participants fashioned seven steps toward family-focused reform: safety and security; the use of best practices; increased contact between incarcerated persons and supportive family members; increased involvement of family members in the development of policy and practice; more data gathering and research; the reinforcement of a family-focused culture through policy, practice, and legislation; and the integration of family-focused priorities in budgetary decision making. Overall, they agreed on four elements necessary for the development of family-focused approaches:

  • The approach must be interdisciplinary, extending beyond juvenile and criminal justice systems to include child welfare, employment, human services, mental health, and other systems that interact with affected families;
  • The approach must use a broad definition of family, including "immediate, extended, and selected" family members, to identify a wide range of people who can provide assistance and support;
  • The approach must be responsive not just to the challenges in people's lives, but also to their assets and strengths; and
  • The approach must be implemented throughout the full extent of juvenile and criminal justice processes from arrest through sentencing, community supervision, incarceration, and release.

The Vera Institute of Justice's Family Justice Program takes a straight-forward approach to family-focused reform: "In practice," as diZerega and Verdone observe, "this has meant developing simple tools and techniques that help front-line staff talk with incarcerated people (or those on probation or under parole supervision) about family members who can make a positive difference in their lives. It also means guiding management to create policies and environments that encourage such interactions."

Justin Jones of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections provided one example of how states can improve their family-centered focus: "With most correctional agencies," he told diZerega and Verdone, "only immediate family can visit. If an inmate is allowed to attend a funeral, it's the same. But it might be a grandparent, an aunt, or somebody else who helped raise this [person. So you try to do a little paradigm shifting with your staff. You let them know there will be changes in the policy, that we're not coddling offenders. It's actually reducing future crime and victimization. You get your staff engaged so they understand what we are attempting to do, and then you change your policy. Then you do quality assurance."

In prisons, it was frequently observed in these discussions, more direct communication with prisoners and increased involvement of family members improved - one participant said "calmed" - prison yard and cellblock environments, reducing disciplinary infractions. Another participants, speaking about the improvement of incarcerated parent-child relationships, noted a series of "little paradigm shifts," including arrest protocols that involve law enforcement visits to children who were present during an arrest to talk with them about what had occurred, allowing arrested parents additional telephone calls to obtain proper child care, court use of family impact statements to address the impact of particular sentencing options on children, allowing incarcerated parents to participate through various means in school and related meetings about their child's welfare, and the use of visitor centers.

As this report attests, "a family-focused approach to justice reform is gradually becoming more commonplace. Good ideas, persistence, and the will to do things differently - among agency leaders, line staff, middle managers, incarcerated people, families, and communities - can help transform the system and improve public safety."  More can undoubtedly be done: Integrate discussions of substance abusers or mentally ill persons and their families into the mix of ideas and practices. Give more consideration of international practices. New Zealand, for instance, has lengthy experience with the use of Family Group Conferences and the involvement of Prisoner Aid and Rehabilitation Society groups. In the United States, of course, worthy of extended review are various experimental or pilot efforts, many of which are started by family members themselves. In this context, it seems mental health groups such as NAMI should be of great assistance.

For further information on this report, or on the Vera Institute of Justice's Family Justice Program, contact Margaret diZerega at 233 Broadway, 12th Fl.,  New York, NY 10279, (212) 334-1300, (e-mail) mdizerega@vera.org. A full copy of this 20-page report is available here.




Posted Fri, Aug 26 2011 2:13 PM by Tracey Vessels
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