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Honoring Coach Russ: A Champion for Juvenile Justice Change

Russ at the August 2021 PbS Agency Coordinators Training in Nashville.
Russ at the August 2021 PbS Agency Coordinators Training in Nashville.

Russ believed in change – the ability for failing systems to transform and evolve, the power of leadership to make a difference and especially in the strength of disadvantaged young people to turn their lives around. In 2011, after decades of public service in Kansas as deputy sheriff, director of the Southwest Kansas Regional Detention Center, district magistrate judge and commissioner of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority (KJJA), Russ joined Performance-based Standards Learning Institute, Inc. (PbS) as a PbS coach, gracing us with his wisdom, dedication, humor and compassion.

I first got to know Russ when he was the director of KJJA beginning in 2007. Russ was an early adopter of PbS’ model of continuous improvement for juvenile justice. He believed in the power of data to drive change and knew how to use information to transform old ways of doing things into best practices that delivered positive outcomes. As commissioner he looked at PbS data almost daily and held his agency’s facilities ― and especially the private providers ― accountable for the care and treatment of the young people entrusted to them. For example, early on he noticed the extraordinary costs of psychotropic drugs at one facility and working closely with facility staff, managed to stop the practice of unnecessary use of the drugs to control young peoples’ behavior. Sounds simple perhaps, but it is not easy to change ingrained systems and old habits. Russ took a unique, bold step to change an old correctional practice that had never before been challenged and he motivated and inspired people to do things differently. He won them over with his brilliance, logic and unrelenting pursuit of excellence.

Russ’ juvenile justice leadership was recognized quickly. In 2009, the national organization of juvenile justice agency directors, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), selected him as winner of the Outstanding Administrator Award. I was serving as the CJCA deputy director with my mentor and founding Executive Director Edward J. “Ned” Loughran. Russ quickly became a trusted advisor to Ned for his clear and strategic thinking as well as his cheeky sense of humor and appreciation of Ned’s passion for casinos. There were many nights the two amazing leaders could be seen sharing stories and smiles and an adult beverage or two. When Ned passed in 2016, Russ stepped in as my mentor and guided me and PbS through difficult times moving forward without Ned. For that and all Russ did to make this world a better place, I am forever grateful.

During his 10 years as a PbS coach, Russ worked with agency leaders and staff in Idaho, Oklahoma, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin and the California counties of Fresno, Riverside, Stanislaus, Sacramento and Merced. He looked at their data, toured their programs, talked with the kids and the staff and then told them what he saw and how they could make it better. He was a natural for PbS’ continuous improvement process and advocate for data-driven decision-making. He loved to remind his fellow coaches of his winning track record: he had coached seven facilities to win the prestigious PbS Barbara Allen-Hagen Award including Washington’s Naselle Youth Camp just this year. He never stopped working hard for the young people who he believed in and wanted to make a difference for. The only young people who made Russ pause were young men in facilities whose fathers, uncles, brothers and friends were all incarcerated, borne from systemic generational cycles of violence, poverty, trauma, unemployment, homelessness and structural racism, and they expected that to be their future as well. “They had no hope,” he told me one day. “And that makes me incredibly sad.”

Russ said he enjoyed his work as a coach because he liked people and he liked seeing them succeed and helping them overcome obstacles. He joked about being too direct with his suggestions and not being welcomed back after a visit and frank conversation. The opposite happened – his time and advice was requested and appreciated time after time. He was a straight shooter, as more than one director said, and told people what they needed to hear in order to best help the young people in their facilities. Russ enjoyed everyone. “PbS is about people. Adults. Kids. Coming together for positive outcomes,” he said recently. “They are really good people.”

Shortly after Russ learned of his cancer, he made a generous donation to the PbS Education and Employment Foundation, established to provide supports and financial aid for young people involved in juvenile justice and help them through scholarships, reentry assistance and employment. I had to convince him to let us name a new $15,000 scholarship in his honor and cannot fathom how he gracefully accepted the likelihood he would never see it awarded. My last communication with Russ was to let him know the Annie E. Casey Foundation agreed to grant the foundation $15,000 for a second Russ Jennings Scholarship. “That’s great,” he said via text. Actually Russ, you are what’s great.

I share this small piece of Russ’ life for those who aren’t familiar with his less public, public service and extraordinary contribution to our country and our future. For those of us fortunate enough to know Russ, picture him making staff in locked facilities who have tough, stressful jobs laugh; gently explaining to and eventually persuading powerful state leaders that there are better ways to run their operations and listening intently to incarcerated young black and brown children talk about their experiences, hopes and dreams. He did it all with humility, humor, intelligence and patience. He is missed.

The PbS Russell “Russ” Jennings Scholarship: Established in honor of Russell “Russ” Jennings and his extraordinary contribution to the lives of countless young people and colleagues in juvenile justice, the PbS Russ Jennings Scholarship recognizes both the importance of continued education after high school and the challenges of completing programs over the course of 12-24 months or longer. The scholarship provides $15,000 for tuition costs for as long as it takes the selected young people to earn a degree or technical vocational certification. 

Information about the obituary and services are available online.

Please feel free to share any memories or tributes of Russ with the PbS Help Desk at

About the author

Kim Godfrey Lovett

Kim Godfrey Lovett

Kim is the executive director of the PbS Learning Institute. Kim was hired when CJCA incorporated in 1994 and has worked since it's inception to create the PbS system of continuous improvement to help facilities and agencies raise the quality of life and better conditions of confinement in youth facilities nationwide. She earned two master’s degrees: in journalism (Northwestern University) and criminal justice (Northeastern University.) She worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years prior to joining CJCA.

PbS has been a partner in assisting this facility to become a dynamic work environment that is not satisfied with maintaining the status quo.