Testimony to the New York City Council



Jeffrey A. Butts and Emily Pelletier

Research and Evaluation Center
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
524 West 59th Street, Suite BMW605
New York, NY 10019

to the

Int. No. 949

April 14, 2016
Committee Room – City Hall

Good afternoon.

My name is Jeffrey Butts and I am director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York.
I am here today with my colleague, Emily Pelletier.

We would like to thank the Chair and other members of the Council for the opportunity to speak today about the quality of interventions for justice-involved young people in New York City.

My professional career began in social services. Emily started out as a lawyer. Today, we are both researchers focusing on the effectiveness of justice systems.

We live and work in New York, but between us, we have worked in and around the youth services and youth justice systems of Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington, DC. If you include our funded projects to improve policies and practices at the State and local level, we have worked all over the U.S. and several other countries as well.

Most relevant for today’s hearing, we have also worked to improve the data collection and data analysis capacities of many youth-serving organizations here in New York City.

We are currently working with the staff of the Administration for Children’s Services to support their efforts to track a wider array of outcomes among the youth and families served by ACS.

After reviewing the Bill under discussion today (0949-2015), we offer the following observations.

Today’s Bill mandates regular reporting of service activities by ACS. This is a laudable goal, but it is not sufficient. If we want to establish policies that ensure effective oversight of services for justice-involved youth, we should pursue three critical tasks:

  1. We must build information systems with individual-level data, not aggregate data;
  2. We must collect data from an array of partner agencies and work to integrate the data across organizational boundaries; and
  3. We must assemble outcome data on a range of indicators and not be satisfied to judge the effectiveness of youth justice based on the simple and often inadequate measure of “recidivism.”

The Bill being discussed today requires ACS to report aggregate and group-level counts of service delivery on a periodic basis, which is fine for baseline auditing.

However, if the Council intends to determine which City-supported programs are effective and which are not, you must demand routine collection of data at the individual level rather than the group level.

Certainly, it is helpful to know how many young people in a given program, or served by a particular provider, actually participated in services. As a temporary strategy, this is a natural step in building good data systems. But, when agencies are required to provide only aggregate data, they are not likely to look beyond aggregate data.

Emily and I work at the City University of New York. If CUNY supported its important decision-making with aggregate data alone, the university would need only to monitor how many students are currently enrolled in classes, or how many classes are offered, or the average attendance rate across classrooms.

Any student or parent of a college-aged student, of course, would want to know much more.

Specifically, of all students who begin taking classes in one year, how many go on to graduate within four to five years? What is the grade point average of all students? Does it vary by age, or by family income? Which academic specialties have the highest average grades, the highest rates of graduation, and the highest rates of post-graduate employment? Are there identifiable factors that would increase a student’s chances of reaching these positive milestones?

These questions can only be answered by tracking individual-level data over time. The university would need to collect ongoing information about each student’s activities and correlate them with the most important outcomes.

This information would have to be maintained for every student and kept in a way that allows the newest information to be appended to the oldest information. In other words, graduation records would have to include individual identifiers or ID numbers that allow analysts to attach today’s outcome data to previous data about the students enrolled four, five, or ten years ago.

The data management challenges facing ACS are at least—if not more—difficult than those facing a university.

Reducing delinquency and youth violence among justice-involved young people is a complicated business. Public safety is best protected when youth justice providers work with young people in their own communities, and when the efforts of courts and children’s services are coordinated with prevention agencies, schools, social services, neighborhood organizations, and faith-based groups.

The most effective youth justice systems offer a broad menu of interventions that are managed collaboratively and across sectors. No single agency can do it all.

From a data perspective, it would be easier, of course, if New York just put all its young offenders in one place—under the supervision of one agency. If we confined all youth in a big, prison-like facility where we could control their every movement, it would be easy to demonstrate that we were making a real effort to protect the community.

We actually did that for decades, as we all know, and we found that this strategy was ineffective, incredibly expensive, and harmful.

Instead, youth justice systems around the country are moving toward community-based networks of private providers that are managed and overseen by public agencies.

This is exactly what ACS has been doing very successfully, which is why the agency is increasingly watched by youth justice experts nationwide.

Of course, youth justice is never perfect. Interventions are often poorly funded and sometimes delivered inconsistently. Agencies do not always communicate well with one another and it is impossible to avert every crisis.

Obviously, when your clients are identified specifically for their bad behavior, sometimes your clients will behave badly.

Yet, we cannot lose focus and shift our core strategies every time a terrible crime is committed. We must use reliable data to track our efforts and we must work to ensure that we never lose an opportunity to achieve positive outcomes.

Children and youth services in New York are, in fact, becoming more transparent, more accountable, and more effective.

Just 20 years ago, it was much harder to determine how effective the youth justice system was because the agencies making up that system were incapable of generating useful data.

Today, the citizens of New York City know much more about how youth are dealt with by the police, by the courts, by probation, and by ACS.

Serious challenges remain, of course, but New York’s community-based approach, called “Close to Home,” is backed by research and increasingly admired by youth justice experts.

If the City is to have a fully accountable youth services system based on solid data, it will also have to collect information about a range of outcomes and not simply focus on recidivism.

Recidivism is not a sufficient measure of effectiveness in youth justice because it is not a measure of youth progress or well-being. It is the result of interactions between individuals and the State, as well as the policy environment in which they come together.

Recidivism is not a crime measure. It captures the sequence of person-bureaucracy interactions that follow a crime. Not all crimes are reported, and only some reported crimes are followed by arrest and prosecution. Recidivism does not offer a comprehensive measure of effectiveness.

For this reason, youth justice systems need to compile data on a wider range of outcomes – especially those representing positive improvements in a youth’s social development and the likelihood of future success.

In our written testimony, we include a number of conceptual frameworks that are available for youth justice systems seeking to enhance their measurement of positive youth outcomes.

They include the following:

Positive Youth Justice

  • Positive Youth Justice is a model that I developed with some colleagues. Our report was published by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national membership organization of state and local youth justice agencies. The report is also available on the website of our research center at JohnJayREC.nyc.
  • The Positive Youth Justice model encourages youth justice systems to focus on protective factors as well as risk factors, strengths as well as problems, positive outcomes as well as negative outcomes, and generally to focus on facilitating successful transitions to adulthood for justice-involved youth (Butts, Bazemore and Saa Meroe 2010).

40 Developmental Assets

  • This model, created by the Search Institute, fosters the development of adolescents into healthy, caring, and responsible individuals through the cultivation of internal and external assets. Adults (e.g., parents, teachers and faith leaders) offer youth the external assets of support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time, while youth use their own internal assets to commit to learning and attaining positive values, social competencies, and a positive self-identity (Scales and Leffert 1999).
  • Youth exposed to an increased number of assets tend to display healthier development during adolescence and into adulthood due to the internal and external developmental assets acting as protective measures against at-risk behavior (Scales and Leffert 1999). Youth with more developmental assets present indicators of thriving: school success, leadership, valuing diversity, physical health, helping others, delay of gratification, and overcoming adversity (Scales et al. 2000).

The 5 Cs

  • The 5 Cs model, developed by Richard Lerner, establishes five categories of positive youth development to indicate a youth is thriving: competence, connection, character, caring/compassion, and confidence. Together, the 5 Cs address positive outcomes in five main areas of development: physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and social (Lerner and Lerner 2013).
  • The 5 Cs model promotes positive change for adolescents by aligning their individual strengths with the “growth promoting resources” available in their families, schools, and communities (Bowers et al. 2010). Youth who have high levels of the 5 Cs tend to have a lower likelihood to engage in at-risk behavior. (Jelicic et al. 2007).

Youth Program Quality Assessment and Improvement

  • The David Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality established the Youth Program Quality Assessment and Improvement model, which promotes positive youth development through encompassing a focus on supportive and safe environments, interactions with staff, and engagement in the program (David Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality).
  • The YPQA model rests on seven key elements: 1) a safe environment, 2) a supportive environment, 3) interaction, 4) engagement, 5) youth-centered policies and practices, 6) high expectations for youth and staff, and 7) youth access to staff and programming. Youth involvement in YPQA/I-based programming demonstrated positive changes in various protective factors, including academic motivation, self-confidence, development of authentic relationships, trust norms, higher order thinking skills, project planning, and the ability to teach others self-assessment (David Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality).

Youth Thrive

  • The Youth Thrive Framework, created by the Center for the Study of Social Policy focuses on five protective and promotive factors that encourage positive youth development and well-being: (1) youth resilience, (2) social connections, (3) knowledge of adolescent development, (4) cognitive and emotional competence, and (5) support in times of need (Harper Browne 2014).
  • The framework highlights the differences between risk reduction and the promotion of well-being; protective factors reduce risk, but the promotive factors identified in the framework enhance well-being through strengthening hope, kindness, social intelligence, self-control, and perspective (Harper Browne 2014).

Each of these frameworks was created to guide the efforts of youth justice policymakers and practitioners as they build intervention systems that are compatible with behavioral science and our growing knowledge of adolescent development.

Using these frameworks to design data monitoring and evaluation structures would allow us to broaden the collection of youth outcome data to include not only risk factors that we want to control, but protective and positive factors that we want to support and nurture among the City’s young people.

We thank you again for your time and we would be pleased to answer any questions or to discuss our testimony now or in the future.

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Bowers, Edmond P., Yibing Li, Megan K. Kiely, Aeirka Brittian, Jaqueline V. Lerner and Richard M. Lerner (2010). The five Cs model of positive youth development: A longitudinal analysis of confirmatory factor structure and measurement in variance. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39(7), 720-735.

Butts, Jeffrey A., Gordon Bazemore, and Aundra Saa Meroe (2010). Positive Youth Justice: Framing Justice Interventions Using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development. Washington, DC: Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

David Weikart Center For Youth Program Quality. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. Assessment.

David Weikart Center For Youth Program Quality. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. History.

Harper Browne, Charlyn. (2014). Youth Thrive: Advancing Healthy Adolescent Development and Well-Being. Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Jelicic, Helena, Deborah L. Bobek, Erin Phelps, Richard M. Lerner and Jaqueline V. Lerner (2007). Using positive youth development to predict contribution and risk behaviors in early adolescence: Findings from the first two waves of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31(3), 263-273.

Lerner, Richard M., and Jaqueline V. Lerner (2013). The positive development of youth: Comprehensive findings from the 4-H study of positive youth development. Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. Tufts University.

Scales, Peter C., and Nancy Leffert (1999). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Search Institute.

Scales, Peter C., Peter L. Benson, Nancy Leffert, and Dale A. Blyth. (2000). Contribution of developmental assets to the prediction of thriving among adolescents. Applied developmental science, 4(1), 27-46.