How to Keep Kids Out of the Criminal Justice System

In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, the ‘System of Care’ focuses on schools—the place where police most often come into contact with juvenile offenders. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, it offers middle- and high school students therapy, workshops and counseling to address the kind of behavior that otherwise might have landed them in court.

When a middle school student in La Crosse, Wisconsin, swore at his teacher, he risked a criminal charge that would establish his juvenile record.

But instead of a referral to the juvenile justice system for disorderly conduct, he was accepted into a new program designed to address the root of his behavior and make it less likely to recur.

The program, which involved months of cognitive behavior, appeared to work. He hasn’t reoffended or faced discipline since for other misconduct.

Called “System of  Care,” the program is changing the way the county addresses juvenile crime since it was launched November 1.  One of only a handful in the country, it focuses on the place police most often came into contact with juvenile offenders:schools

Curt Teff, a La Crosse School District supervisor who helped develop the program, says the aim is to hold students “accountable” for their actions.

“It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” he said.

The collaboration that crosses agency lines spent years in development to address the county’s disproportionate juvenile arrest rate.

System of Care fills a gap between how schools handle misconduct and what the juvenile justice system provides by addressing [troublesome or acting-out] behavior without a ticket or arrest. Stakeholders believe that the program, while still in its infancy, is working, although the extent of its impact could take years to determine.

“If we didn’t do something different, we would continue to see the juvenile arrest rate climb and see more kids on supervision,” said Bridget Todd-Robbins, who oversees the System of Care.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce barriers to learning and to reduce the amount of referrals to juvenile justice.”

‘Call to action’

Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse County’s juvenile arrest rate was higher than the state average and those of three similar-size counties, according to a study by the Carey Group, a consulting firm retained in 2008 to examine the country’s juvenile justice system–although few juveniles were committed to the Department of Corrections. The consultants also hinted that minority juveniles may be over-represented in the juvenile system.

“It was surprising and absolutely concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, who supervised the county’s Juvenile Justice Unit until taking over Justice Support Services. “It was a call to action.”

In 2013, stakeholders in the justice system, police, schools and community members formed the Juvenile Justice Arrest and Disproportionate Minority Contact Inter-Agency Task Force. State Department of Justice data revealed the arrest pattern continued in each year between 2007 and 2011.


While whites were the most-arrested racial group, black youths had the highest arrest rate each year and were nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The leading arrest charge was disorderly conduct.

About 62 percent of juvenile arrests occurred on weekdays and 25 percent of those were at public schools.

About one-third of cases referred to the criminal justice system resulted in the juvenile being counseled without formal charges. Juveniles were placed on supervision in about 16 percent of cases.

A majority of juveniles cited or referred for charges were not high-risk offenders; they engaged in impulsive behavior that’s typical of adolescent development, Teff said. But there are risks involved if a juvenile enters the justice system, including continued criminal behavior and a decreased chance of graduation.

The Inter-Agency Task force found that without a clear policy on the type of misconduct that warrants arrest and with few arrest alternatives, juveniles were being pushed into the system in a misguided approach to get them help.

It recommended creating a formalized agreement between schools, police and the juvenile system for clear guidelines on when to arrest a juvenile and when to offer a different intervention.

For guidance, the county turned to Clayton County (Ga.) Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped establish the country’s first System of Care.

Juvenile arrests in Clayton County skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent between 1996 and 2003, after the school district stationed police inside schools. The problem, Teske said, was that officers had no alternatives to arrest.

“They acted like street cops on a school campus,” he said. “I saw all of these cases and juveniles being detained and I thought, ‘Something has to give. This isn’t right.’”


Research showed that arresting and jailing low-risk juvenile offenders increases their likelihood to reoffend and that many will age out of delinquent conduct, Teske said.

“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “And when we arrested them, we were contributing to making them worse.”

In  2003, when Clayton County adopted a memorandum of understanding between the court system, police and school district to reduce juvenile arrests by offering alternatives that held kids accountable while addressing the root cause of the misconduct, school arrests plummeted 54 percent in six months.

“It goes to show how many arrests were for minor offenses,” he said. “And that was the problem.”

By offering students workshops to address conflict and theft, drug treatment and wrap-around services for families, juvenile arrests in schools have fallen 71 percent since 2003, while graduation rates rose 30 percent, Teske said.

“The System of Care seeks to help kids who need it,” he said. “We identify causes for the behavior and match them with resources so they can develop coping skills that will help them function in school.”

The system

In La Crosse, the System of Care is built on a partnership involving the La Crosse School District, La Crosse police and the county juvenile justice system.  Students who skip school, steal, hit, damage property or are disorderly while on school property during school hours are eligible for the program.

Juveniles who commit those offenses while on supervision for other crimes are not.

The program is voluntary and requires consent from parents and victims. Each offender must undergo a risk and needs assessment that will determine what led to the behavior and how to correct it.

“Overall, they’re just kids,” Longfellow Middle School Associate Principal Jon Baudek said. “But there are kids making bad choices over and over again.”

Students may be offered counseling, mentoring, anger management training, drug treatment, mental health counseling and, along with their families, referrals to other services for ongoing support. System of Care’s  Todd-Robbins also is working with school staff to remove barriers to learning.

“It is not about excusing behavior,” Todd-Robbins said. “It’s about addressing behavior through skill development.”

Some 29 juveniles have enrolled in the System of Care between its November launch and late March.  Most of those accepted into the program are middle school students, and truancy, punishable by a citation, was the leading offense.

“I have kids who haven’t been to school yet this year,” she said.

The early results have been encouraging. Truant students are back in class and others who faced repeated referrals for discipline now have none.

Todd-Robbins hopes to establish the System of Care as a nonprofit organization so that it would be eligible for grant funding and could expand to neighboring school districts and include offenses students commit off school property.

To address disproportionate minority contact, school district administrators, teachers, social workers, police and others who come into contact with juveniles can participate in the La Crosse YWCA’s racial justice training series to recognize and change how personal biases and prejudice, even on a unconscious level, affect how they deal with kids.

“The issue isn’t always the kid, but how we’re perceiving the behavior,” said YWCA’s Social Justice and Advocacy Director Molly Hilligoss. “If we can look at how we react in our situation and realize our own biases, we can counteract those biases.

“Hopefully, we can continue to lessen the disproportionate minority contact and mitigate the bias.”

Anne Jungen, a staff writer for the  LaCrosse Tribune, was a 2015-2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.  This article, part of her fellowship reporting project, is a slightly condensed version of a story published earlier this month. Read the full version here. Anne welcomes comments from readers.