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Former Superintendent John Deasy previews new initiative to rethink juvenile prisons

Matt Barnum | September 21, 2016

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Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy speaks before listening to public com

(Credit: Getty Images)

See previous interviews by The 74: Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Senator and Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski, Harvard Education School Dean Jim Ryan. Full 74 Interview archive here.

As superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, John Deasy laid out an ambitious vision for improving schools. Today, his supporters say he succeeded in significantly improving student outcomes across the city, while his critics point to poor relationships with many of the district’s stakeholders and his botched plan to integrate iPads into Los Angeles classrooms. Deasy resigned under pressure in late 2014.

Now Deasy is back in the news, planning to launch a new program that he says will fix juvenile prisons in a way that both reduces recidivism and improves the life prospects of incarcerated youth.

I spoke with Deasy in depth last month about his vision for the program, how it might be implemented and whether it amounts to a form of privatized prisons.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

The 74: Can you start by telling me about your new initiative — what you’re working on, what you’re hoping to accomplish?

John Deasy: In October, I am launching a new organization called New Day, New Year. This organization is going to design, build and launch a set of alternative juvenile prisons in the country: in Los Angeles County and Alameda County in California, and then hopefully in Oklahoma and in New York City. In short, what I want to do for the next 10 years is to be part of the rethinking of juvenile justice in this country — and specifically youth corrections.

Our youth will leave our experience drug- and substance-free; on track for graduation or enrolled in community college, depending on their age; resilient; and also employed.

The theory is, we want to reduce recidivism by 50 percent as compared to the local county recidivism rate. That’s the short answer.

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What immediately jumps to mind is that this is a sort of charter school for juvenile prisons. Do you see it along those lines?

We don’t at the moment have successful alternatives where you have dramatically lower recidivism for youth, and we want to create that opportunity. I don’t know if it’s charter-like, because I don’t think there’s such a rule or a vehicle.

What would the governance structure be, then? Is this under the traditional governance of publicly governed prisons? I’m asking because there are a lot of concerns about privately run prisons.

I have enormous concerns around privately run prisons, and abhorrent concerns around for-profit prisons. The governance structure is as it currently is, and we’re aiming to provide the current governance structure an alternative setting. Judges could sentence or re-sentence youth — obviously it’s a willing proposition — to New Day, New Year, and in turn we will abide by the guidelines of the state that we work in and produce dramatically different results. But it’s certainly not for-profit, and it’s not private.

So that would mean you would have to work within the existing structure and convince policymakers that they should invest in or work with you to create this new program, right?

You get to the heart of it almost instantly. Correct.

Have you started those conversations with folks? And what has the reaction been?

The reaction has been amazingly positive. We’re at the beginning of this — this is not January 2018 yet. I’m sure there’s a lot of stress and lots of hurdles to go through, but quite frankly it’s nothing compared to what the youth are going through, so I think we can get through it.

What specifically do you think you will do differently, and what makes you think you can be successful where others may have failed — or where the current system is failing?

I’ll give you a couple of answers as to what we believe we can do differently that would contribute to better outcomes:

One is scale and size. So these are not proposed to be large “industrial-sized” housing units; they’re small. The correctional campuses would be no more than 50 youth.

Two, the entire design is built into part of the theory of correction, which is to build healthy experiences for community engagement. Community being family community, your neighborhood, community of school, community of residential experience.

Another piece is employment — very important if you’re going to both break a cycle of poverty and break a cycle of resources that are illegitimate. Legitimate employment is an enormous component of this.

Another piece is a different take on exit. Our program is a program that would think about exit as, you just don’t leave and go on probation. You experience a period of transitional community housing that we also facilitate, so that the most vulnerable portions of the next six to eight months of a young person’s life after they exit is that you’re still in a deep connection with therapy — family counseling, individual counseling, monitoring like you would normally have during probation, but a guiding hand in the reintroduction and reconnection with public education. That tends not to go well at all. We want to be part of making sure it goes very well.

How do you see incarcerated youth participating in this program? Do you see this as something they affirmatively choose, as something a judge assigns … that just some are in this program and some are in the traditional program?

The ideal to me would be a combination of the first two. Yes, a judge offers this as a form of sentencing with the concurrence of the youth, so a young person opposed to this is probably not a young person that this program is designed to support. I don’t believe or expect that to be a problem, however. I expect just the opposite.

How do you plan to fund this?

When the organization is up and running, the state funds that come to incarcerated youth would come to this program. Facility-wise, it’s going to be privately fundraised. Facilities have to all meet the acceptable codes, and that involves fundraising, as well as supplemental services — the things we would do that are outside, probably along the lines of recreation and post-care support, we would have to fundraise for.

How far along are you in that process?

We’re in the process of fundraising right now.

What proportion of the necessary funds have you raised so far?

The thing I would say that has been very encouraging is the direct outreach, in saying “I want to support this program,” that’s come by existing organizations, by individuals — that’s been really wonderful.

Are you worried about stepping on the toes of people who have been working in this area much longer than you have?

Oh, not at all. I expect to learn from them, and I expect to be a partner. Sadly, there’s enough work to go around.

One of the criticisms of your tenure at LAUSD was that you had a lot of big ideas, but there were sometimes challenges in the nitty-gritty of implementing them. Do you think that criticism has any truth, and will it affect how you go about this new project?

I think people are free to — and do — criticize all the time. That’s the democracy that we live in. The thing that’s really good about that is you continue to grow as an adult and learn how you can always do things better. The growth from all of my 32 years of employment come to bear on this issue.

What specifically do you think you learned from your time at LAUSD that you would want to apply in this context?

Don’t take on small challenges; take on very big challenges. Youth are desperately counting on us. That would be one thing.

Second of all is an absolute belief in every single youth; there are no throwaway kids. I bring that belief absolutely to this.

On the management side, I would say staying big-scale is very important, so not solving every problem at once, and trying to be at peace that it won’t all be solved at once. On the other hand, I would also point to the fact that there were pretty staggering results while we there in the administration of LAUSD. Test scores were never higher; every single marker was never higher; suspensions were never lower. Pretty dramatic gains and closure of gaps occurred. Folks wanted to criticize — you can take that, if you can get those results.

There is a lot of interesting overlap in the debate about criminal justice and the debate about education policy. In criminal justicethere are concerns about privatization of prisons, and you hear that about privatization of schools. 

I agree. I’d want to draw a pretty bright line. Public charters are not private schools, and it’s not privatized.

Some people make the claim that they are.

I think that’s a self-serving claim. It’s just not a factual claim. I get the self-serving part of that. I want to be very, very clear: This has nothing to do with private prison or, God forbid, for-profit.

Another interesting parallel is that sometimes we hear that education reform is not addressing the root cause of poverty or low educational achievement. I think someone might say that about this initiative: that there’s a lot of discussion about reforming the criminal justice system and reducing incarceration. What you’re doing is trying to improve the context of incarceration and get better outcomes. But some might say that the root issue is that we’re overincarcerating our youth.

I believe we are. Absolutely. That’s why I spent so much time as a superintendent dramatically reducing suspensions, stopping ticketing, fundamentally not contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. So it’s both sides of that.

When young people make very bad decisions and there are consequences for that, that should not mean they are ghost incarcerated for the rest of their lives, which is what happens with a lot of policies.

In the process of creating this program and scaling it, are you going to talk to incarcerated youth and ask them what they want changed and what their vision is for a juvenile justice system?

Absolutely, and I have done that fairly consistently over my life.

What have you heard from them?

A lot of things, but I can give you themes.

One is that “I don’t want people to be afraid of me the rest of my life. I don’t want to be isolated. I am a good person who made a mistake. Do I get a chance to start over again?” It’s fairly haunting, when you have things like a record and you have that pretty terrible experience.

Another thing you hear is, “I am actually smart, even though I may have done a stupid thing. I know how to do other things.” You also hear something else, which is, “I never really got a good education, didn’t know opportunities were in front of me, and had a set of life experiences that led me to a place of making some desperately bad decisions when I didn’t know there were alternatives.”

Mostly, people want to be cared for — and cared about.

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