Second Chances for First-Time Offenders
Strict “zero tolerance” policies have led to a disturbing number of in-school arrests — about 1,600 in the School District of Philadelphia annually. Once in the justice system, youths’ life chances are diminished considerably. Psychology Professor Naomi Goldstein is working with community partners to divert students from the damaging “school-to-prison pipeline,” improving outcomes for youth and making Philadelphia a national leader in the process.

_Naomi Goldstein

Goldstein is a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences and head of the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab.

After spending nearly two decades working to transform juvenile justice in America, Naomi Goldstein understands that changing people’s minds about crime and punishment — especially crime and punishment for at-risk youth — is no easy task.

But Goldstein, an associate professor of psychology in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, also knows that change is possible, and sometimes, she says, a simple shift in mindset can make all the difference.

“In all of my work, it’s about transforming this idea that there’s no hope for these youth,” Goldstein says. “It’s about recognizing that, if we use empirical data, if we enact the right changes in philosophy and if we change the structure of the system, these young people can lead positive lives. And that’s not only better for them; it’s better for their communities, for their states and for the country.”

Goldstein has emerged as one of the nation’s leading thinkers in the area of juvenile justice reform.

Her unique research interests — which range from anger management to trial competence and from interventions with girls in juvenile justice facilities to Miranda rights comprehension among youth suspects — have uncovered serious structural problems within the nation’s juvenile justice systems.

Perhaps most importantly, her work has delivered real solutions to some of the trickiest problems facing those systems today, and has offered greater hope to an untold number of at-risk youth in Philadelphia and beyond.

One Size Does Not Fit All

At the core of Goldstein’s work is the very simple, very problematic and, to Goldstein’s mind, entirely undeniable fact that the American juvenile justice system was adapted from the adult system and, therefore, designed for mini-adults, not kids.

“We know that adolescents don’t make decisions the same way that adults do, particularly in high-pressure situations,” she says.

One couldn’t find a situation more “high-pressure” than that of a police interrogation room. It was in that context that Goldstein, as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and on clinical internship at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, first became curious about the workings of the juvenile justice system.

More specifically, she developed an interest in how well — or how poorly — adolescents would perform in the context of interrogation.

It didn’t take her long to discern that many young people don’t have the capacity to make informed decisions such as whether to waive their Miranda rights or to provide confessions to police.

“These kids are brought in for questioning, and it’s a very intense situation,” Goldstein says. “The police are allowed to deceive suspects — even juvenile suspects — in order to get a confession, and many youth simply have fundamental misunderstandings about what their [Miranda rights] mean.”

During a typical interrogation, there is no sympathetic adult in the room advising the young person.

“Even when there is, the adult may be pressuring the kid to respond to the police — to cooperate with them and take responsibility for what they may have done,” she says. “The adult is not encouraging the child to assert their rights to silence and legal counsel, which would be in the child’s best legal interest.”

Goldstein’s work on Miranda rights eventually led her to question juvenile justice more broadly. She began to think about how the legal system treats youth as opposed to adults and about how the unique psychological characteristics that may increase youths’ risks for entering the system undermine their abilities once they enter the system.

In short, she has developed a broad-based interest in not just identifying the problems within our nation’s juvenile justice system, but also in developing and implementing solutions.

In Philadelphia, Goldstein’s work on two related projects has already gone a long way toward improving outcomes for at-risk youth.

With the support of a fellowship from the Stoneleigh Foundation, a Philadelphia-based foundation focusing on juvenile justice and child welfare reform, Goldstein has been partnering with Philadelphia’s Juvenile Probation Department and juvenile justice leaders to reform the city’s juvenile probation system.

By making the system more responsive to the ways adolescents make decisions about their behaviors, Goldstein believes these youth can be better positioned to successfully complete the terms of probation.

At the same time, she is evaluating a citywide program established two years ago that aims to give students who misbehave at school a second chance to stay out of the justice system.

The Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program was established and implemented in all Philadelphia schools in May 2014.

Under the program, a student who commits a lower-level offense on school property, and who has no history of a delinquency finding in juvenile court, is not arrested. Instead, with this one-time opportunity, he or she is diverted to community-based prevention programming to address the underlying challenges in the lives of the student and family.

The program — a collaborative effort between the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and the School District of Philadelphia — is intended to address the underlying reasons for misbehavior rather than subjecting the youth to the immediate and collateral consequences of an arrest record. Goldstein is evaluating the program with support from a grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

This innovative approach is built on a rather simple premise: Once a young person is arrested and placed in some kind of correctional facility, his or her chances of ever leading a normal, productive life are slashed considerably.

About 90 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities report histories of traumatic events, and the seclusion, loss of privacy and perceived lack of safety in these residential facilities can exacerbate mental health problems.

Once released from juvenile justice facilities, youth can experience a cascade of negative consequences. More than half will drop out of school upon release, Goldstein says. A history of arrest and conviction can trigger the family’s eviction from public housing and the youth’s disqualification from many colleges and jobs. Those with a criminal record may be ineligible for military service — no small issue for the many young people who may see that as their path out of a disadvantaged upbringing.

So, Goldstein says, it only makes sense to keep the youth who present little risk to the community out of those facilities and out of the juvenile justice system whenever possible.

“The simple fact of the matter is that residential juvenile justice facilities have incredibly negative impacts on young people,” she says.

And since not all arrests can or should be avoided, Goldstein focuses on preventing arrest when appropriate and also on reforming probation systems for youth who have entered the system.

“What we hope to do with the probation reform work is to reduce the number of kids in detention, and reduce the number of kids in longer-term residential placements,” she explains. “If kids are low-risk offenders, then we want to keep them out of placement.”

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

It’s completely normal for kids to break the rules, says Goldstein. For some, that means breaking the rules of the house. For others, it’s getting into trouble in school. And for some others still, that rule-breaking can cross into criminal activity.

But even the latter situation should not necessarily portend a bleak future.

“The vast majority of kids who do these things go on to become completely well-adapted individuals who don’t commit crimes,” Goldstein says.

Unfortunately, even for kids who do manage to stay out of legal trouble after their first offense, the justice system can be stacked against them. And the problems caused by that structural flaw are far-reaching.

Sixty percent of delinquent youth receive probation as their primary legal disposition. That at least keeps them out of detention and residential placement. Unfortunately, half of those youth will eventually end up in a juvenile justice facility anyway, not because they committed a second crime, but because the strict terms of probation are easy to violate. Violation can be as simple as missing a mandatory meeting with a probation officer or skipping school.

“If these young people on probation learn that there is something for them to work toward and to achieve, it can promote positive behavior in the long run. That’s a big part of this work.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that many “first offenses” may be very minor or even sometimes accidental, says Goldstein. Imagine this scenario: A student who works an afternoon job at a warehouse accidentally brings his box cutter to school with him — careless mistake or not, that offense often sends an otherwise innocent student into the system.

When Goldstein argues against automatically arresting youth or putting probation violators in detention or residential placements, she has biology and psychology on her side.

The undeveloped adolescent brain is wired differently than an adult brain. Chemically and physiologically, teenage minds are prone to impulsiveness and risk taking and are geared toward emphasizing short-term rewards over long-term negative consequences.

This can create problems for youth on probation. The immediate fun of partying with friends on a Saturday night is a more powerful motivator than the risk of probation revocation at next month’s court hearing because of a curfew violation and failed drug screen.

“Historically, if you fail one of your, often, very numerous probation requirements, the thinking has been, ‘Well, OK, you’ve violated your probation and so our only option is to lock you up.’ What I’m doing is applying empirical data to the juvenile justice system — data that suggest that the use of behavioral-shaping principles will work to improve youth probationers’ behavior.”

Establishing a juvenile probation system that reinforces positive behaviors while providing proportional consequences for negative behaviors can help shape youths’ decision making, and, as a result, help them successfully complete probation.

“We’re trying to move away from this ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to probation,” Goldstein explains.

For instance, one common requirement of probation is daily school attendance. But imagine the student, raised by a single mother working irregular jobs or suffering from an illness, who skips school to take care of younger siblings.

“[This kid] hasn’t been to school in two months and is now attending a couple days a week,” says Goldstein. “You can either tell this kid that he has failed to fulfill his probation requirement or you can recognize that going from no school to two days per week is a big improvement — and that he actually deserves credit for that behavior.

“If these young people on probation learn that there is something for them to work toward and to achieve, it can promote positive behavior in the long run,” she says. “That’s a big part of this work.”

One-Time Get Out of Jail Card

In Philadelphia, Goldstein’s somewhat radical ideas are being put to the test in the form of the city’s Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program, a city-wide program initiated by the Philadelphia Police Department.

So far, the approach is passing with flying colors.

The diversion program was initially rolled out in all Philadelphia schools in May 2014. Though the program launched during the tail end of the 2013–14 school year, it immediately showed great promise.

Under the rules of the program, a first-time offender who commits low-level delinquent acts on or around school premises is not arrested — which is to say, he or she never formally “enters the system.”

Instead of being handcuffed, removed from school, taken by police car to the police station, held for up to six hours for processing and finger printed, the student meets with a Philadelphia Department of Human Services social worker and is referred for intensive prevention services after school. Therapy and other support is available not only to the youth, but to parents and families as well.

Imagine a 12-year-old boy carries a knife to school because he feels unsafe in his neighborhood. In previous years, this student would likely have been arrested. Now, school police and staff address how to improve his commute to school and the student is provided with the support services he may need.

“It’s a one-time deal, yes, but at least with that first incident, they are staying out of the system,” says Goldstein.

The Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program showed its full potential during its first full year of operation, in the 2014–15 school year.

According to Goldstein, total school-based arrests dropped 54 percent from the previous year — falling from 1,582 to just 724. Arrests related to the possession of weapons were down 87 percent, and those tied to the possession of marijuana fell 85 percent.

The results from the 2015–16 school year are on track to be even better, with a further decline in the number of school-based arrest across the city.

In fact, as of December 2015, more than 800 students had been diverted through the program, and of those, only 36 — 4.5 percent of the total — were later arrested for new offenses in school or in the community. This is particularly notable, Goldstein says, because national data suggests that between 37 percent and 67 percent of young people who end up in custody will be re-arrested.

In truth, the program is succeeding far beyond what even she had expected. “You don’t see results like this very often,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Some of the biggest fans of the program are the arresting police officers, many of whom had been dissatisfied with the old policies. “The vast majority felt it was not only helpful to the youth directly involved, but it was actually increasing the overall safety of the schools,” Goldstein says.

The more successful Philadelphia’s programs become, Goldstein says, the more hope there will be for at-risk youth nationwide.

“There’s a lot of attention on this topic now, but that certainly wasn’t the case a decade ago,” Goldstein says. “Philadelphia really took the lead on reform efforts in this area. …My hope is that a lot of these projects will be successful not only in Philadelphia, but in other cities around the country as well.”