A Roadmap to the Future of Juvenile Justice

Juvenile justice is transforming throughout America. Though there is a long road ahead to reform these systems into effective, rehabilitative programs that no longer make children worse, there is great promise in jurisdictions across the country, that are changing how they work with youth.

California, Texas, Washington, DC, New York, and many other jurisdictions have seen significant juvenile justice reform efforts take root. These reform efforts seek to protect the public safety by providing effective, rehabilitative services and supports to young people who have engaged in delinquent behavior.

One of the most promising of these juvenile justice reform initiatives is Positive Youth Development (PYD), also called Positive Youth Justice. PYD is a strengths-based approach to working with youth, in contrast to traditional correctional models, which are inherently deficit-based. Historically, young people in juvenile justice systems have been seen as “problems” that need to be fixed or punished, an approach that has proven both harmful to youth and ineffective from a public safety perspective. PYD builds on the strengths and assets of youth while also addressing their needs.

The Sierra Health Foundation headquartered in Sacramento has embarked on an innovative Positive Youth Justice Initiative that will award four California counties $400,000 each to implement PYD programs. This exciting initiative will, hopefully, jumpstart a movement to implement Positive Youth Development programs throughout California.

Another commonsense reform effort is Trauma Informed Intervention. The vast majority of youth arrested for delinquency have experienced significant trauma in their lives. There is an old saying that “hurt people, hurt people.” The error of juvenile justice has been to only focus on a young person’s delinquent acts, while failing to address the underlying trauma that gave rise to the behavior.

Instead of effectively addressing the traumas young people have suffered, juvenile justice systems often exacerbate it. Numerous studies have shown that incarcerating young people has profound negative effects upon them. Several reports have also revealed that probation supervision makes lower-risk youth worse. Juvenile justice systems must take advantage of research that has developed risk assessment tools that are able to effectively separate high and low-risk youth. It is both efficient and effective to focus the limited resources of probation departments on the highest risk youth in the system, with the ultimate intervention, detention in a juvenile facility, being utilized for only those youth that pose legitimate risks to public safety.

Proven detention alternatives, such as Evening Reporting Centers (ERC), should play a key role in detention reduction strategies. In East Oakland, California, the state-of-the-art youth center, Youth Uprising, serves as an ERC. Young people who would otherwise be detained in juvenile hall are allowed to live at home but must report every day after school to Youth Uprising to complete homework, use the computer lab, the music studio, or an array of other services and opportunities, including a health clinic. When the program is over each night, the youth are driven home to ensure compliance with their court-mandated curfews.

When it is determined that a young person is a true risk to the public safety and needs to be incarcerated as part of their rehabilitation process, systems must develop facilities that don’t harm, but educate, treat, and rehabilitate young people. In the 1980’s, Missouri began to transform its large, dysfunctional juvenile facilities into what has become the most renowned and successful state system in the country. Missouri touts a lower recidivism rate than any other state by utilizing its small, therapeutic, humane juvenile facilities that are close to the homes from which the youth come. The successful Missouri Model has been replicated in Washington, DC, Louisiana, and parts of California.

Lastly, it is essential that juvenile justice and the community become partners. For too long, government agencies have excluded the community and many neighborhoods have been all too willing to give up their youth to a harmful system. A new partnership must go both ways. The $100,000-$200,000 spent annually on each youth in the system must be more productively invested in the communities that young people come from. In turn, these communities must then accept those youth and provide effective services, supports, and opportunities that allow the youth to disengage from delinquent behavior and become successful adults.

The New York City Probation Department has begun to open Neighborhood Opportunity Networks, centers that provide education assistance, counseling, employment training and other opportunities to those on probation. The Opportunity Networks are being opened in those neighborhoods with the highest rates of people on probation.

This is the future of a successful juvenile justice system: Positive Youth Development, Trauma Informed Intervention, detention reduction, humane and rehabilitative juvenile facilities, evidenced based practices, a focus on high risk youth, and strong partnership with the community.