Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, April 21, 2011

Witt makes juvenile justice system fairer, more effective

Jason Witt

Alum Jason Witt has won national recognition for his work to reduce disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system — the overrepresentation of minorities compared to their proportion of the general population.

Witt was honored in December in Washington, D.C., as a "Champion for Change" by the MacArthur Foundation-supported Models for Change juvenile justice systems reform initiative. The award was a result of Witt leading efforts in Rock County, Wisconsin, to use data-driven approaches to reduce the number of youth of color placed in secure detention.

The honor came about one month after the 1999 La Follette alum advanced from his position in Rock County as deputy director of human services to become the director of human services in Wisconsin's La Crosse County. 

Witt left Rock County with a juvenile justice system that is more fair and effective for minority youth. "The evidence-based practices we put in place will better ensure youth are receiving the counsel and resources most likely to result in their staying crime-free," he says. Rock County also is using data in a more sophisticated way to manage and improve services for everyone.

The reform Witt led resulted in a 27 percent drop in the number of youth of color admitted to secure detention for probation violations. The work began in 2003, after Rock County received a small grant from Wisconsin's Office of Justice Assistance to study why so many young African Americans were going to jail in comparison to whites. "Although Rock County's disproportionality in this area had been identified as being one of Wisconsin's highest, DMC is an issue that plagues jurisdictions throughout the country," Witt says.

Touring Rock County's juvenile detention facility for the first time in 2003 had a profound impact on Witt. "Knowing Rock County's racial make-up, it was shocking to see how many of the kids' faces in that facility were black. Something just seemed wrong." says Witt. "We looked at the data to determine what was bringing African American youth into the facility in such disproportionate numbers."

What that data showed was surprising, he says. At least half the youth were being locked up for reasons other than an immediate public safety concern. "The data revealed that non-public safety related sanctions for probation violations accounted for approximately half of all secure detention admissions," Witt says. Many of the violations were "lower grade" offenses, such as truancy, school misbehavior and minor drug offenses. 

Witt facilitated meetings of community stakeholders and officials, including the district attorney, juvenile court judge, and law enforcement officials, to explore options. The collaboration led to probation violators being sent to drug education and anger management programs housed at a well regarded community center, instead of to detention.

Within two years, African American youth in Rock County's juvenile justice system went from having a 30 percent greater likelihood of having a case involving secure detention to being less likely than white youth to be detained. In addition, the overall number of youth in secure detention dropped from 20 a day in 2002 to 14 in 2009. 

Witt's focused, data-driven approach to reducing disproportionate minority contact resulted in 2007 in Rock County gaining membership into the MacArthur Foundation-sponsored DMC Action Network. Membership brought a sizable grant to increase the county's capabilities to gather and analyze data, as well access to national experts and consultation with peer jurisdictions performing similar work. 

Network support proved critical in 2009 when Rock County's juvenile reform efforts became the center of controversy, Witt says. The Human Services Department included closing the county's juvenile detention facility (and instead sending detained youth to neighboring counties) on a list of options for the county board to consider in absorbing state funding cuts. "Part of what made the detention closure option viable was the decreasing population in the facility," Witt says. 

The closure option prompted allegations that decreased use of detention was jeopardizing public safety and had all along been part of a plot to close the facility, Witt says. To clear the air, the Rock County Human Services Board hired the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families to do an independent evaluation. The evaluation, while critical of management's approach to organizational change, found no evidence supporting the allegations. To the contrary, its analysis of local detention decisions and probation practices reinforced the need to move forward with the reforms, Witt says.

A data-driven management model called RockStat played a key role in reducing disproportionate minority contact, Witt says. He developed the model so the management culture of Rock County Human Services could become more outcome focused. Models such as RockStat, Witt says, "help keep service performance on track, keep managers accountable, and help ensure the limited resources we have are used most effectively." Witt has shared his experience with RockStat in presentations he has given around the county.

Witt earned a master's degree in public affairs as well as a law degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Prior to coming to Rock County in 2002, Witt worked three and one half years as a budget and policy analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

Witt credits what was then the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs with preparing him well for the challenges he's faced in his career. "The quality of the La Follette education is second to none for aspiring public servants," he says. "My education has served me well throughout my career. I find myself using the full array of La Follette's core curriculum—from public management, budget, policy analysis, human resources and organizational culture—on a constant basis in my work."

Enrolling at La Follette was something Witt did not anticipate when arriving at the University of Wisconsin in 1995 as a first-year law student. He learned about the dual law-public affairs program through a chance encounter with Vaughn Vance, a high school classmate and 1998 joint La Follette / Law School graduate. "The public affairs degree was a good fit for me, and I enjoyed the public policy courses," Witt says. "I knew I was not going to spend my career in a traditional law practice. My career could have turned out very different without the La Follette component to my education."

The move to La Crosse County in November was a homecoming for Witt, bringing him full circle. He grew up in the city of La Crosse and attended the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where he graduated in December 1994. His undergraduate studies included a semester internship in the Clinton White House. 

He began his tenure in La Crosse at a critical time for human services departments around the state. Governor Walker's plan to address the massive state budget deficit will have a significant impact on county human services. But besides sacrifice, Witt sees an opportunity in the state budget crisis, perhaps elimination of some state mandates that can impede more flexible and responsive local services. He also sees promise in regional human services models, where counties partner together to deliver shared services. "We may not be able to change the significant cuts headed our way," he says, "but we can also try to use the situation to make improvements."

Monday profile: Jason Witt is on a mission, January 3, 2011, La Crosse Tribune

Jason Witt-Disproportionate Minority Contact Action Network Champion for Change, December 1, 2010, DMC Action Network