Self-Assessment in Juvenile Corrections

Administrators of facilities and advocates for juveniles should consider using a self-assessment process to improve conditions of confinement for detained and committed youth. Self-assessment may be a valuable tool when juvenile justice administrators and agency officials wish to avoid imminent, costly, and time-consuming litigation that would force them to defend inadequate conditions or practices in a confrontational process. Self-assessment may be encouraged through documenting constitutional and statutory violations that are likely to lead to a successful suit against a facility. Advocates for juveniles and representatives from juvenile facilities can collaborate to improve the conditions of confinement without litigation by creating implementation plans that outline remedies for existing violations. This process can only work if the juvenile justice authorities recognize that the conditions in their juvenile facilities present problems that must be corrected.

The Self-Assessment Process

This chapter presents two models for self-assessment: the consultant and the working group models. The consultant model uses an external consultant or organization as the central assessment team and organizer to work with facility administrators to identify deficiencies and plan improvements. The working group model uses facility administrators and agency representatives as the leaders to do their own facility assessment and work with advocates to devise an implementation strategy. Whether using the consultant model or the working group model, self-assessment should follow a four-step process of investigation, documentation, planning, and implementation.

Conducting an investigation and assembling documentation are fundamental to the process of self-assessment, both to demonstrate that facilities are vulnerable to lawsuits and to establish a basis for identifying the areas in need of reform. Documenting constitutional and statutory violations also encourages cooperation by local juvenile courts and agencies responsible for operating the facilities. An advocate, administrator, or consultant could gather information about unlawful, unsafe, and inhumane conditions of confinement. Sometimes pro bono assistance may be available from law firms. Media coverage or grand jury investigations may also help with documentation of rights violations. Advocates for juveniles must be mindful not to jeopardize cooperative solutions at the documentation stage by antagonizing juvenile authorities and fostering entrenchment instead of collaboration. Advocates should try to elicit assistance from the juvenile justice authorities and emphasize that participation in information gathering may encourage collaborative problem solving instead of hostile litigation.

Entering into the planning stage requires agreement by all participants that the constitutional and statutory violations need to be addressed through systemic change. Reform often requires major changes in funding and policy, and both administrators and advocates must be willing to find creative ways to reach agreement on some issues. The self-assessment process will not lead to successful systemic reform if potential defendants and plaintiffs cannot rise above their positions and collaborate genuinely.

Pro bono assistance from law firms or meetings called by well-prepared civic organizations can facilitate the planning and development of solutions. Advocates need to recognize that facility administrators may feel powerless to effect needed change and may, in fact, be unable to change conditions without the cooperation of outside agency officials. Facility administrators, representatives from key agencies, and advocates must take time out from daily crises to engage in collaborative problem solving. Assistance with self-assessment from outside groups or consultants will be most effective if offered in a constructive way, with practical, cost-effective suggestions for improvement of inadequate conditions. The planning stage presents the most hurdles because it requires the development of consensus among all parties involved in the reform. Once worked through, however, it will facilitate successful implementation of improved conditions.

The final stage, implementation, depends on a well-detailed plan. Success of the implementation also depends on the commitment of each person involved in the reform efforts. Once implementation has been carried out, continuous monitoring will ensure that the process of reform through self-assessment leads to actual and measurable improvements in the conditions of confinement for detained and committed youth.

Consultant Model: Juvenile Detention Example

In 1992, a group of juvenile justice administrators and others involved in juvenile corrections recognized that overcrowding in the juvenile detention facilities in their State had reached a crisis level. The detention facility administrators and State agency officials contacted Community Resource Associates (CRA), a national organization that provides technical assistance to States. CRA hired two attorneys with extensive experience in this area from the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center to be consultants to the agencies.

After visiting five detention facilities, the consultants drafted a vulnerability assessment that summarized constitutional and statutory violations supported by pertinent case law citations. The introduction to the assessment noted that detention administrators were candid and gave the consultants free access to all parts of the institutions. One of the consultants described the agencies as "courageous" because of their willingness to expose the detention facilities to scrutiny and their interest in knowing how the conditions compared with those of facilities in other States. A section of the report addressed the potential liability of certain officials, pointing out that under Federal civil rights law, State tort law, and statutes such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, supervisors or governing bodies might be liable for failing to act where the corrective inaction amounts to deliberate indifference or tacit authorization of the offensive practices.

The officials in this effort knew that their juvenile detention facilities were in deplorable condition and wanted to take the steps necessary to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions. They felt that they did not control significant root causes of overcrowding and chose the consultant model because they hoped a respected outsider's opinion could lead to wider discussions of collaborative remedies and thereby force needed action in the State.

The Youth Law Center's vulnerability assessment of detention conditions covered eight areas that may be useful as a juvenile justice diagnostic tool in any community:

 Overcrowding. Severe overcrowding existed in each detention facility and resulted in inadequate education, health, mental health, and recreation services, coupled with increases in institutional violence, suicide, and disciplinary restraints. These conditions violated children's rights under the 14th amendment due process clause. The report described ways court-imposed population caps and limitations on sleeping arrangements have been imposed to remedy overcrowding in juvenile facilities around the country.
 Safety. The report found that, "Overcrowding means that staff has lost the ability to appropriately place children . . . in different living units or private rooms," resulting in young or aggressive or suicidal detainees all being placed together. This condition violated the right of incarcerated youth to be protected from threats of violence and sexual assault.125
 Restraints/Isolation. Mechanical restraints and excessive isolation in juvenile detention facilities stripped away the juveniles' liberty in violation of constitutional due process requirements. The report commented that "our experience in past litigation is that courts are not persuaded by the excuse [that restraints and isolation become necessary because] the mental health agency has not provided adequate services for, or removed from the facility, emotionally disturbed youth." Furthermore, "an extensive body of case law sets limits on the deprivations to which inmates may be subjected in isolation" and provides due process rights for disciplinary hearings on institutional rule infractions.126
 Education. The incarcerated youth did not receive a full day of school nor adequate special education services. These conditions violated the detained youth's right to an adequate education program.127
 Health Care. Each facility lacked routine health screening and medical and dental services, especially for residents who were taking medication, were pregnant, or had serious medical conditions. Furthermore, the absence of basic mental health services, such as the means to recognize and intervene in suicidal behavior, violated the juveniles' constitutional rights.128
 Recreation. The inadequacy of exercise and outdoor recreation in the detention facilities violated children's constitutional rights.129
 Staffing/Training. Poor staffing ratios, overtime, and lack of training "amount[ed] to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom staff come into contact."
 Environment. Fire and safety hazards, filth, crumbling plaster, serious lighting problems, plumbing leaks, and lack of private bathrooms constituted unsanitary and inhumane environmental conditions violating the incarcerated youth's constitutional rights under the 8th and 14th amendments.
To address the substantial violations outlined in the vulnerability assessment, the consultants made the following recommendations to the facility administrators and advocates for juveniles:

 Do not try to build your way out of overcrowding. The report noted that preventing overcrowding requires strict detention criteria to limit predisposition placement in facilities. Adequate alternative programs must be available to maintain juveniles in the community. Moreover, most of the overcrowding conditions in the detention facilities were too urgent to wait for construction.
 Do not permit detention centers to be used for postdispositional programs or shock treatment. The report observed that the purpose of detention facilities is to provide short-term secure confinement pending adjudication. While detention facilities must offer services, they should not attempt to provide long-term rehabilitative care. Most youth in postdisposition status in detention facilities could have been appropriately served in less restrictive settings.
 Adopt more restrictive detention criteria and systematize detention review. The report urged facilities to develop procedures to ensure that only youth who are dangerous or are likely to flee are held in the facilities. Facilities need to review juvenile detainees regularly to identify youth who could be released to a less restrictive environment, thereby reducing overcrowding. Facilities also need to create risk assessment instruments to assist in this process.
 Increase home detention and other nonsecure alternatives to detention. The report noted that although a continuum of noninstitutional detention options had been proven successful, too few slots were available to serve eligible children.
 Expeditiously move out children awaiting placement in State facilities or nonsecure placement. The report urged efficient movement of children from detention facilities to comply with juvenile court dispositional orders.
 Reduce overrepresentation of racial minorities in detention. The report found that, "the system as a whole must . . . scrutinize whether intake determinations of eligibility for nonsecure alternatives work against minority youth and, if so, how to eliminate that bias."
 Prohibit the use of fixed restraints. The report emphasized that, "the use of mechanical restraints, particularly restraint to a fixed object, should be strictly prohibited."

The release of the report served as a catalyst for discussion and action. It was presented at a meeting of detention facility administrators and State agency officials, and two major newspapers carried articles discussing findings made in the report.

The detention facility administrators embraced the recommendations and followed the self-assessment process by immediately addressing several of the report's findings. One of the facilities self-initiated a cap on the number of detainees. Another facility limited the number of youth per dormitory to four. In another facility, the number of slots in home detention was increased, and the use of padlocks on individual rooms, a serious fire risk, was universally banned.

Within a few months of the report, judges had reduced the number of youth sent to secure detention, and more youth were removed from detention within 72 hours of commitment. These measures limited the detention of preadjudicated youth and had a direct impact in reducing overcrowding.

In February 1994, a statewide secure detention plan that addressed overcrowding as a systemic problem was released by the State agency with oversight responsibility for juvenile detention facilities. The extensive plan described conditions of confinement and provided data on length of stay in juvenile detention facilities. New detention criteria were proposed, and detention review committees were developed in several communities to enhance consideration of alternative placements in appropriate cases. Capacity for secure detention facilities was established, and a capacity compliance advisory committee was appointed to develop procedures for reducing populations at crowded facilities to their stated capacities. These steps resulted in an immediate reduction in overcrowding in one region of the State. The detention plan endorsed the expansion of alternatives to secure detention and for this purpose was approved by the State legislature. Certain facilities were given assistance to expand secure detention alternatives, such as electronic monitoring and intensive supervision, with the philosophy that detention is a process, not a place. Additionally, secure detention beds were approved by adding two small facilities in areas of the State with no secure beds and by enlarging existing facilities through construction. The plan concluded that collaborative initiatives by agencies, detention administrators, juvenile court judges, and local officials were under way to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions. Although the long-term prognosis remains uncertain, the self-assessment process helped improve conditions of confinement and avoided costly and time-consuming litigation.

Working Group Model: Child Welfare Example

In another State, the working group model is leading to child welfare reform. Local attorneys, in partnership with the National Center for Youth Law, presented a written critique of the handling of children in foster care and children potentially in need of foster care placement to administrators in a State department of human resources (DHR) and a children's services division (CSD) in 1993. The critique focused on unnecessary removals from home, lack of services for families, lack of services for children with emotional disturbances and developmental disabilities, poorly prepared foster parents, dangerous foster homes, multiple placements for many children, and unequal treatment of minority children.

Based on these findings, the attorneys were preparing to sue the State. Through their representation of individual children and their parents, the attorneys had numerous examples of children's and families' rights violations occurring in the child welfare system. The attorneys believed that the pervasiveness of specific problems in the system would allow them to file a class action suit. They hoped the CSD staff would recognize their vulnerability to a successful suit and would therefore be open to a collaborative effort to improve the child welfare system.

The attorneys invited CSD to enter into a process to plan a significant reform of the State child welfare system. A key factor in initiating the self-assessment was that both sides were able to agree that working together to design a reform was preferable to litigation. Everyone agreed that litigation would drain resources from all parts of the child welfare system. Given their disagreements about the extent of the problems and about possible remedies, it was a significant achievement that the parties could agree that the costly 1 or 2 years of discovery typical in such cases would not lead to much information that they did not know at the outset.

A series of meetings among the collaborators resulted in an agreement that the CSD administrator would appoint a working group comprising three advocates, three State staff (including the DHR attorney and a representative from the mental health and developmental disabilities services division), and two experts from a State university who had been involved in child welfare training and research.130 The working group, led by a CSD representative and one of the attorneys for the children, decided on a three-step process. First, they would collect information on the problems in the child welfare system. Second, they would design a system of care for children and families that would include an implementation plan for achieving such a system. Third, after presenting this plan to the CSD administrator, the parties would negotiate the implementation and monitoring of the reform.

The working group struggled with major disagreements during the first step of the process and was challenged to move beyond the polarized roles of prospective plaintiffs and prospective defendants. While the agency had agreed that problems existed in the child welfare system, the agency working group participants were defensive when advocates described egregious cases. For weeks, trust remained low among working group participants, and many had difficulty believing that they would be able to cooperate sufficiently to achieve their desired end result.

The working group met for an entire day at least three times a month for 5 months. CSD agreed to hire a consultant to help design a system of care for children and families and to develop an implementation plan, and agreed to the working group hiring two national experts. Working group members and consultants read volumes of materials, visited CSD local offices and the central office, reviewed cases, and met with foster parents, residential and nonresidential providers, and parents of children. A letter soliciting input to the working group was sent to 1,000 individuals and organizations concerned about children and families in the State; the letter received many responses. Working group members and consultants also visited innovative local interagency programs and met with a commission on children and families, State and local mental health organizations, the judiciary, and a citizens' review board. CSD staff visited other States to learn about child welfare reforms that seemed closest to the process they envisioned for their State.

The final product of the working group was a cooperatively written document that contained little disagreement between advocates and CSD. The report began with a strong statement of goals for change. A primary goal was improving practice by caseworkers and providers in reaching agreements with families about their needs. Improvement was also called for in the development of services that build on family strengths and meet the needs of children and families. The report discussed specific elements of reform necessary to keep children safely in their homes and to improve out-of-home placement practice and foster care quality. Services to families and improved care for children removed from their homes were envisioned as part of the integrated reform. The report concluded with specific steps to implement and monitor reform, including a locally based reform process with training and support to staff in each branch to ensure changed practice, flexible funds at the local level, and collaborative relationships with other caregivers.

It is not yet clear whether the process will result in the systemic reform hoped for, but participants are optimistic. It appears that the State has been able to design a reform built on collaboration with more commitment on both sides than is typical of court orders and consent decrees. In contrast to being forced from the outside, the State reform is a local initiative resulting in a collaborative working group process.

Several elements were necessary for the success of the working group self-assessment process:

 Cooperation. Despite their initial mistrust, working group members stuck with a process. Instead of remaining polarized, they spent a lot of time with each other and remained more committed to improving care for children and families than to disagreeing with or defeating the other side. The group's shared leadership helped keep both sides at the table.
 Accurate Information. CSD allowed data about removals, services, and foster homes to inform the working group's efforts. The consultants were impressed with the information compiled in the working group's early stage, which helped in reaching agreement about how to improve care for children and families.
 Working Group Staff Person. A CSD employee knowledgeable about child welfare reform was instrumental in staffing the working group -- she kept information flowing, involved the consultants effectively in the working group process, and helped to maintain the belief that reform could be achieved.


Both methods of self-assessment can be instrumental in providing more lawful, safer, and healthier conditions of confinement for detained and committed youth. An advocate or administrator who wishes to engage in self-assessment can start by gathering information about systemic deficiencies. Once the process is initiated, many complex issues will inevitably emerge. Patience and persistence are essential. Most facility administrators have a genuine desire to run safe, humane facilities. Advocates should tap into and consult with those individuals to urge and support a self-assessment process.

Checklist for Self-Assessment
Check Choose the consultant model or working group model, or prepare a new model.
Check If using the consultant model, do some research and talk to local agencies about which consultants would be the most helpful.
Check If using the working group model, determine how members are appointed and by whom and then talk to each member of the working group.
Check Gather documentation (or work with others to gather documentation) that supports the need for assessment and improvements from the following sources:
Check Staff and administrators of the facility.
Check Residents of the facility.
Check Available records.
Check Parents.
Check Local agencies and child advocates.
Check Plan the assessment process so that it focuses on issues and outcomes that result in improved conditions.
Check Implement the assessment process by:
Check Assembling all of the necessary people.
Check Scheduling regular, required meetings.
Check Working through disagreements.
Check Focusing on practical ways to reach desired end results.

Previous Contents     Next