Author Nell Bernstein opens up on closing down juvenile prisons
Nell Bernstein, activist, journalist and author, is scheduled to speak at the MST’s pre-conference, which will kick off this April’s Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development Conference in Denver. We initially spoke with her back in October 2014, a few months after the publication of her second book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. It is a compelling argument for the wholesale takedown of the juvenile-prison system. As part of the run-up to the conference, we wanted to sit down with her again, look back on the last year or so and talk about what the future may bring.
Since our conversation in 2014, we have seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement calling attention to the mistreatment of black youth by police, large protests in cities across the U.S. from Baltimore to New York, Chicago to Cleveland, Los Angeles to Charleston, S.C., and numerous other cities and the recent announcement by President Obama ending the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles and his urging states to follow his example. The disparate treatment that black youth receive in the justice system compared to white youth was a major theme of Nell’s book. I asked her what she thought of these events. “Not enough” was her short answer, but she did point out that progress clearly was being made. She mentioned that the juvenile prison population has decreased by more than 50 percent (it was 40 percent at the time the book came out), and that trend appears to be continuing. While President Obama’s decision affected very few juveniles, it was a strong symbolic gesture that could pave the way for much broader change.
Troubled kids need more programs like Multisystemic Therapy
Nell went on to question what is happening to these young people now. There are many fewer going to prison, but they still need support. Her concern is that too few of them are being linked to services that could help break the cycle that they are in. Being kept out of prison is a great advance, but where are these kids going now? It’s a good question, but one without a clear answer. Nell would like to see more of these young people being directed into programs like Multisystemic Therapy, but she is not seeing much clear evidence that is happening. She said she would have liked to have spent more time in her book writing about these alternatives to prison. She said it’s much easier to say “Don’t do this” than it is to implement a more effective replacement. She lamented there is no shortage of effective programs, remarking, “it’s clear what works,” but they don’t seem to be making as large an impact as they should. Might this be the subject of her next book? She answered, “No more books.” However, she is working on a project that came out of Burning Down the House— getting families more involved in the juvenile-justice process.
We talked about some of the challenges to putting in place programs that effectively break the cycle of offending. Interestingly, Nell did not cite money as a major issue. Clearly, the money is there. If money is available for locking up kids, then it’s available for cheaper (and more effective) alternatives like MST. Instead, she described the barrier as one involving an attitude. Nell spent the last couple of years being interviewed and appearing at conferences and other events, speaking to a wide range of individuals. She said that there is still a sense that this population, juvenile offenders, is not a group of kids that people want to invest in. The good news is that attitudes do seem to be changing for the better, but that this continues to be the main stumbling block to doing more of what works.
Back when parents were considered the problem
Toward the end of our conversation, Nell remembered back to when she was a young social worker employed in a group home for girls. At that time, she explained, there was a sense that nothing worked and that the parent was the problem. Treatment involved limiting the girls’ contact with their families and focusing on developing relationships with professionals. The problem, she saw, was that eventually that professional relationship had to come to an end and the girls returned to their families. She sees programs like Multisystemic Therapy, with the emphasis on empowering the parents and strengthening the parent-child relationship, as a much more sensible approach. Clearly, there is a natural convergence between Nell and the work being done by all the people behind Blueprints and the programs they promote as effective.