Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Role of the Arts in Juvenile Justice Settings

In the late 1950s, while touring for the State Department, the jazz musician, Dave Brubeck became fascinated with the unusual meters he heard in the street music of Turkey and Bulgaria. Back in the U.S., he and composer Paul Desmond translated those elegant quintuple rhythms into a quartet, naming it “Take Five” in honor of how those borrowed rhythms invigorated the regular 4/4 meters of American jazz. More than a half century later, the piece is a lesson in what can happen at the intersections.

Throughout 2012, we were part of quite a different “Take Five” project. It was an NEA funded research collaboration that brought us together with two partners, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the agency charged with protecting and serving the children and families in settings such as child welfare, foster care, and juvenile justice. At a moment of rapid reform in the state and city’s juvenile justice system, all three partners wanted to examine the role the arts might play in that process. But while we shared this question, each party brought its own approaches, methods, and ways of working to the project. In many respects, the NEA dollars funded two projects: 1) an evaluation of music programs for incarcerated youth and 2) and a laboratory for collaboration.

The project, “Our Voices Count,” operated in both of the city’s two secure residential detention facilities where young people await adjudication. During the project, volunteer youth joined a choir that met for 12 evening-long sessions over two weeks. Young people learned and rehearsed songs, many reflecting the communal and redemptive tradition of American gospel and folk music. They composed their own melodies and lyrics. They rehearsed and performed a fully produced concert for their peers, staff, and families.

Our evaluation* asked: 1) whether high-quality, ensemble-based music could create a more positive and collaborative environment inside the often stressful, uncertain world of secure detention and 2) whether the environment created by the choir results in positive outcomes for young people, including better peer relations, more constructive behavior, and a changed sense of self.

Thus, the project brought together a rapidly evolving public agency charged with transforming an adult-based correctional model to one that could produce positive outcomes for youth; a cultural institution invested in demonstrating the transformative power of music; and a team of independent developmental researchers. Working at that three-way intersection, we took away five invaluable lessons.

1. Embrace Complexity

As a researcher, the goal is the clarity and elegance of laboratory science. But particularly in research designed to inform immediate practices and policies in a highly debated field like juvenile justice, what you really want is complexity. From the get go you want all the people, departments, and perspectives that will eventually shape whether the findings are believed, discussed, or applied. In this project we worked with seven different departments inside ACS, and three major divisions of WMI. Day-to-day, this makes meetings are hard to arrange, multiplies points of negotiation, and guarantees that edits come in successive waves. 

For example, we crafted a memorandum of understanding with department leaders that allowed first for evaluation and then for researcha complex undertaking since we were working with minors in the correctional system, who can ill-afford having their histories and identities revealed. ACS agreed to supplement its publicly-released data with non-identifiable behavioral data on participating youth at both secure detention sites and gave us permission to collect additional data from youth and staff. But then we needed to loop in the internal research staffthe people who know how the data is organized, how “noisy” the data is, and which data sources are mature enough to be reliable. Similarly, we hoped to draw on a new daily behavioral monitoring system that indexed residents’ positive and negative behaviors, only to learn from on-the-ground facility staff that this system was far from being implementedso that if we wanted fine-grained behavioral data we would have to collect it ourselves. The upshot: we trained Carnegie staff to observe, code, and negotiate inter-rater reliabilityan unexpected, but valuable, crossover in roles.

2. Share Complex Findings

As we analyzed the data, we found important, positive results in both of the participating facilities. Staff reports of young people’s externalizing, or acting-out behaviors were significantly lower following the residency at both facilities. In addition, across facilities, 75 percent of young people completed the music residency and earned the half-course credit toward high school graduation from their on-site or future New York City high school. Nearly two-thirds of young people reported spending one to two hours between individual group sessions working on their music in their own free time, acting as agents to set and work towards a longer-term goal. More than two-thirds of residents reported working with other young people, professional artists, and facility staff, not only in rehearsals, but also in music-related free time activities. Finally, nearly half of the participants reported they experienced change in multiple areas of personal well-being (e.g., positive emotional state, sense of achievement, self-esteem, self-confidence).

But we also found that participants at one of the sites earned high school credit at significantly higher rates, built stronger social networks around music, and exhibited lower levels of disengaged or disruptive behaviors. These uneven findings were potentially important insights into the ways in which different environments shape the impact. But the data was also complicated news in a system that as a whole was trying to improve. We knew that the higher-impact facility had the advantage of a more stable staff who had worked with WMI and similar programs for a longer period of time. By comparison, the second facility was in the process of re-structuring its staff to address challenges inside the building. By looking at facility incident data, we were also able to see that the first facility had, over time, found a way to operate largely without recourse to more severe forms of discipline (restraints and in-room confinements), whereas the second facility had a history characterized by higher rates of these measures. Our challenge, as researchers and partners, was to acknowledge and explore the interaction between specific settings and program impact, but to do so in a way that could promote systems change rather than blame, rank, or cast aspersions. We shared an early draft and set up a conference call with ACS leadership and staff members at both facilities. It was a frank exchange.  We found a way to describe the two facilities as being at two different points on a continuum of moving from adult correctional to youth development models, while still portraying the consequences for youth behavior and program impact.

3. Mix Methods

We were committed to a mixed methods design that combined both quantitative measures of impact (e.g. changes in behavior), as well as qualitative measures of young people’s internal experiences. From pilot work, many of the young men and women were weary of formal scales and inventories that captured only their symptoms, failures, or needs. We needed more respectful, and expressive tools capable of reflecting what might occur for choir members. Here we turned to our music partners who underscored the communal nature of choral work. As a result, we asked youth to diagram their networks of potential musical partners early and later in the residency, tracking whether and how those collaborations expanded. In addition, building on their experience with the expressive and figurative language of music they were singing, we asked participants to write short list-poems where they described themselves “in” and “out” of music. Using these arts-derived approaches, young people were willing to share their experiences throughout the residency. And, at the later stage of writing and publishing our findings, these examples gave us more than a single way of conveying the impact of the work.

Student survey response

4. Expand What and How We Measure

Even with the research report written and posted on the web, we still have a major task in front of us. Many conventional indices of adolescent health, particularly those applied to youth viewed as “deviant,” focus chiefly on decreasing negative behaviors: early pregnancy, crime, truancy, suspensions, and suicide rates. This emphasis on a deficit model leaves the early positive steps young people take to reflection, re-entry and rehabilitation totally unmapped. So we would argue that developmental psychology, along with its partners in youth-serving agencies, have to:

• Collaborate on the development of measures that index the very early development of emotional, social, academic, and life-skills in adolescents seeking to change the choices they make.
• Conduct longitudinal studies of young people to understand how they make mid-course corrections successfully, attempt and fail, or refuse to try. Such studies will involve both the benefits and the dangers of sharing data across schools, agencies, and health systems, but understanding how to recapture human potential is, in our view, as important as the work on protecting human potential in infancy and childhood.
• Help agencies that support youth placed at risk (e.g., secure and non-secure detention facilities, foster homes, etc.) to develop on-the-ground approaches to acknowledging, supporting, and tracking the emergence of positive behaviors.
• Create tools that to help youth and their teachers, counselors, and social workers identify the assets, talents, and aspirations that can anchor their future lives and potentially outweigh their past behaviors and current problems.

5. Balance Caution and Urgency

Even though we had statistically significant findings, our ACS colleagues kept us alive to the limitations of the evaluation. Given the design and purpose of the residency, the program enrolled as many young people as wanted to participate. Thus, there was a bias in favor of volunteers. Moreover, we lacked a comparison group, leaving open the possibility—however unlikely—that the changes we observed would have occurred absent the choral residency. Moreover, our examination of the differences in the two facilities was limited to a post-hoc analysis of a limited range of incidents. Our juvenile justice colleagues worked in a field that has been whipsawed by rhetoric and driven by incomplete research (e.g., the predicted rise of young “super predators,” leading to the youth prisons and policies designed to “scare kids straight.”). They knew that if arts were to be included in juvenile justice programs receiving public funding, it would require building a careful, evidence-based case.

But there are more than two million youth in U.S. juvenile corrections, 95 percent of whom have been detained or arrested for non-violent crimes. In fact, the United States incarcerates more youth than any other developed nation and for longer periods of time with clear evidence that that experience will significantly decreases their chances of finishing high school, finding employment, or flourishing in other ways. So, even as we are cautious about what we can claim from a research perspective, it is incumbent on us to take every opportunity to highlight the arts policy issues that the research underscored:

• The need for neighborhood-based deterrence and prevention programs featuring the arts
• Youth development training, including the arts, for correctional staff
• Full education, including arts learning, in detention and jail
• Cross-institutional collaborations to provide regular arts programs in correctional settings that can help youth to identify their talents and skills
• Transition counseling for arts-engaged youth moving from correctional facilities back into their communities (e.g., identifying arts high schools, internships, after school programs that will support their talents and determination to re-enter)

So about “Take Five”: You could think about this research project, as a kind of cover or riff on the original. Like Brubeck and Desmond, we also “took five” too, by listening and learning at the intersection of three different worlds: artistry, public policy, and research inquiry.

A copy of the full report of the “Our Voices Count” project can be found here. Other final papers from Art Works research grants may be found here.

*Using a mixed-methods design featuring pre- and post-residency assessments, we explored whether or not intensive engagement in ensemble music making could yield a range of positive youth development outcomes. In contrast to the deficit models frequently applied to court-involved youth, many of our measures focused on the growth of young people’s engagement and pro- social behaviors.


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