How am I going to do this? I stared at the Excel spreadsheets glaring back at me from my computer monitor and the chicken-scratch notes I had scrawled across three different legal pads. I pushed back from my desk and took a deep breath. What’s the right way to tell our story?
If I were to share this moment in a formal way, I would say I was completing the system assessment for the first year of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) “deep-end data analysis.” I spent months collecting, analyzing, and reviewing qualitative and quantitative data on dispositional decision making in Lucas County, Ohio—a deep-end pilot site for JDAI. I would say that I was preparing to review the findings with county administrative and judicial leaders, presenting areas of strengths and opportunity in the continuum of care to reduce out-of-home placements for youth. But if I were sharing this moment with a close friend on a Friday night, I would bemoan that I have to talk about how we can improve dispositional decision making to 1) the people who make the decisions and 2) have been doing so since I was a kid! What?!
Mind you, I work for the best leaders and with the best colleagues I ever have experienced during my career (I say this because it’s true—not just because they might read this), yet this was an intimidating moment. Juvenile justice reform is full of intimidating moments. It also is full of questions, hope, skepticism, and a hearty dose of risk. The key to navigating any of these moments with the community is to use data to guide reform efforts. Examining data through multiple lenses (e.g., sex, gender, race/ethnicity, geography) and completing comparative analyses across time, population, and decision points will dispel myths, inform stakeholders, and guide decision making in reform. Quantitative and qualitative data can lift up strengths within a jurisdiction, uncover new opportunities, and reveal projected impact in a policy/program change.
One or two deep breaths later I pulled back up to my desk feeling determined. The data highlighted strengths of which our system could be proud: The number of youth sent to out-of-home placements has declined for several years and interventions in place are evidence-based. The data said the system operates in a logical manner: The likelihood of a youth being placed outside the home correlates to the risk the youth poses and the seriousness of the offense.
New opportunities presented themselves as well. Too many youth were placed on probation for low-level and low-risk offenses, and the disproportional representation of minority youth, especially at the deep end of the continuum, is disturbing. Gaps exist in the continuum of care for alternatives to incarceration. But today we are building innovative new programming to fill those gaps and relying on our data to guide our efforts to keep more youth safely in their communities.
And today, even on a Friday night with a close friend, you will not find me bemoaning intimidating moments in our reform efforts because I have learned that data is the storyteller; I just have to put the pages together.
Rachael Gardner is a licensed social worker who currently serves as the JDAI & Deep-End Initiative Coordinator for Lucas County Juvenile Court. She is particularly passionate about building community capacity to respond to youthful delinquency and eliminating racial and ethnic disparities. In the past she has served her community as a clinician, advocate, community organizer, and coordinator. She obtained her MSW from University of Toledo and her BSW from Bowling Green State University.