Lessons for Advocates from Youth First Poll on Juvenile Justice

Last week, we mentioned a new poll on Americans’ attitudes about juvenile justice, released by the Youth First Initiative as part of its official grand opening of sorts.

We called it a “great resource for reform-minded juvenile justice advocates,” and that is true. It is a piece of independent polling that can be held up as evidence that the vast majority of Americans agree that rehabilitation and development should be at the heart of the juvenile justice system.

But in fairness, it was crafted to produce those results. This was a survey that put forward statements like the priority of juvenile justice is “making sure that he or she gets back on track and is less likely to commit another offense,” and then asked respondents to agree or disagree.

That approach is almost assuredly going to yield favorable results when compared to a this-or-that approach, or an open-ended question. And there is nothing wrong with that; the survey does well to establish a baseline cognizance among Americans that when it comes to addressing crime, kids are different.

At the same time, advocates should take note of the lines with the least amount of public support. In terms of the broader “hearts and minds” aspect of advocacy, these are likely the points on which either Americans are unclear or undecided. Youth Services Insider sees two worth mentioning.

Closing Prisons

Only 54 percent favored closing youth prisons and redirecting savings to community-based programs. When you take this 50-50 response in tandem with the consensus on the broader notion of a development-oriented system, it seems that many Americans are in on the idea of reforming juvenile justice, but perhaps not in such a way that diminishes the incarceration option.

Now, most juvenile reform advocates would argue that the central path to toward a more rehabilitative system entails, in most states, closing expensive prisons and capturing at least some of the savings to spend on community-based alternatives. And what this line suggests is that while America is by and large sold on the idea of a more rehabilitative juvenile system, they aren’t yet sold on the prison-closure-as-payment part.

Detaining Status Offenders

For those supporting a phase-out of the valid court order exception (VCO) in the always-on-hold reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, note the gap between favorables on two different lines:

  • 83 percent agreed that youth should be incarcerated for “offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults,” which is how you describe status offenses to people who don’t geek out on juvenile justice policy all day.
  • 60 percent agreed that technical violations of probation and other types of supervision, such as missing curfew or testing positive for drug use, should not result in placement in a youth prison. 

We’ll concede that these are not directly correlative, but lots of technical violations of probations amount to the commission of a status offense in violation of a court order. So about four of five people believe a status offense does not merit incarceration, but four in ten people might be okay with it if said offense violated probation.

That gap really isn’t surprising when you think about the fact that the average American in this poll has raised a kid, has probably gotten angry when the kid did something wrong, and then gotten furious when he did it again after being told not to. In that light, it’s actually pretty awesome that 60 percent of respondents get that juvenile corrections should not be run based on the wisdom and logic of household discipline. There are bigger consequences in play.

Why is this significant? In YSI‘s humble opinion, it’s because if and when the VCO phase-out becomes law, states will have three years to comply with it. And we believe it’s reasonable and likely that at least some judges will complain as the deadline nears that they have no hammer to hold over the heads of repeat status offenders.

The gap in these two responses suggests to us that, at present, the complaints of those judges will resonate with the public. And there’s really only one way to combat this sentiment: With greater information about, and more dollars for, alternatives to locking up repeat status offenders.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.