June 1st, 2014

Retiree devotes self to juvenile justice work

Whereas some may dream of a life of golf or travel or gardening during their retirement years, there are others who see that time as an opportunity to make a positive impression on the world around them.

For Mark Booher, Ph.D., retirement from a career in the public sector has meant more time and energy to be spent doing work that, while unpaid, has high value for society and, in the end for his own sense of self.

Booher worked for nearly 30 years for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in various roles including in state-run psychiatric hospitals, prisons and outpatient clinics and most recently as clinical director of a juvenile detention unit for the Department of Youth Services.

After retiring in March of last year, Booher has thrown himself back into the world of juvenile justice. He was recently appointed to the governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC), a volunteer position. He has also stepped up to act as expert witness for juveniles charged as adults.

He spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his new role and the reason he felt compelled to commit his time and energy at this point in his life.

Q: What exactly is the role of the JJAC?

A: The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 charged each state with four core requirements: eliminating secure detention of status offenders, i.e. kids that run away or are truant, to not lock them in secure detention with kids charged with criminal offenses such as assault and battery. Also to ensure that there is sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults and not having juveniles locked up in adult jails. And finally, to address the over-representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system.

The JJAC, besides making sure the state is in compliance with these core requirements, is also to advise the governor on matters that apply to juvenile justice.

 Q: You mentioned the disproportionate number of minority youth involved in the system. What authority or jurisdiction does the JJAC have to enact changes that will improve that situation?

A: There are federal grants and one thing done with that money was something called the Juvenile Justice Alternatives Initiative, JDAI. They have been getting together across the state as an advisory committee to find other alternatives besides secure detention for kids who are involved with the courts or else diversions so that someone who has had problems at school, does not have to go in front of judge and have it be a criminal defense rather than more local offense.

 Over the last eight years, the number of kids in secure detention has gone down dramatically. I think about 40 percent, maybe more than that.

Q: Was this mainly due to this program?

A: That got things started and then the other agencies worked from that, taking it over for themselves.

Q: So the goal of the JJAC is to initiate this type of program and then transfer it over to the people on the front lines?

A: Exactly, to the agencies doing it.

Another initiative funded through a federal grant was the Alternative to Lockup program. Instead of kids being brought to a secure lockup, they may go to a staffed secure location. The doors are not locked and when the kids come to court, they are not in handcuffs and shackles. They come in regular clothes. That can be very important for how they are dealt with because they should all be presumed innocent. These are kids who could be found guilty of shoplifting because that is a criminal offense, which is different from stabbing or shooting someone.

Q: I read that one of the Marathon bomber’s friends from college wanted the right not to wear the orange jumpsuit in court because it would sway the jury.

A: Right and there are studies nationwide that show that these things do make a difference.

We have been also doing ad hoc things – one is about having a Competence to Stand Trial law that is written that reflects juvenile situations. That is currently in the legislature. We are trying to support a more kid-friendly law. The laws are written for youth from ages 7 to 17, so would a 7-year-old know what is going on in the courtroom, what everyone does, what their roles are, so that they can work with their lawyer?

Q: You were also asked to help out with the Committee for Public Counsel. What will your role be with them?

A: I may be doing some work with public counsel on people who have been charged as adults for things they did when they were juveniles. The laws changed to be consistent with the scientific evidence about the culpability of a juvenile. Information on brain development shows that brains do not fully mature until people are about 25. Rental car companies have known this for a long time and that’s they why don’t rent to people under 25.

There is a group of about 70 people who were tried and sentenced as adults prior to the change in the law. I would be acting as an expert witness as a mental health specialist in court.

Q: Now that you have retired, why accept this extra work?

A: I think it is important to try to make things more kid-friendly because we have a system basically set up for adults. And I want to help people who provide services which are effective in reaching their desired results. For instance, I went to a talk in Denver last month on evidence-based programming, what works effectively with youth, so we can help spread that and use it here in Massachusetts. Because there are some programs which we know are not effective but are still done with youth like “Scared Straight,” which may actually increase chances that youth may be involved with the juvenile justice system.

Because I have worked with various agencies, I have a unique view of how all these different parts fit together. I have had kids in schools, in communities, on probation, awaiting trial, being committed, after being committed, who have ended up in the state system. So I have a pretty good feel all across the spectrum, which is a little bit different.

As far as for me personally, it’s also about someone being recognized for the work that they have done and been able to bring that up to a larger arena.

I have worked in the public sector for many years and as a psychologist there is also some work we do pro bono. It gives me a chance to put to use my years of experience and expertise to help out at a larger level. And I was in a place where I could do that.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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