There’s good reason to celebrate justice system reform for young people. From the period of 2003-2013, the number of young people in the juvenile justice system has declined by 47 percent, and the number of youth in adult court has also declined. We have also diverted low-risk youth from the system, increased the age that young people could be served in the juvenile justice system, and closed youth prisons in states like Connecticut and Virginia.
But prisons, the kind built for youth or adults, are no place for kids. And as the overall population of justice-involved youth has declined, black youth are more than four times more likely to be committed to youth prison as white youth. Systems treat black youth more harshly than white youth, even for the same offense. For young people who commit offenses considered “serious” or “violent” the response remains centered on prison.
The new report – “Smart, Safe and Fair: Strategies to Prevent Youth Violence, Heal Victims of Crime and Reduce Racial Inequality,” by the National Center for Victims and Crime and Justice Policy Institute, answers this question in the affirmative.
The co-authors identify areas of common ground for reform from both victims and justice advocates. Key findings affirm that we can do more for victims, young people and the safety of our communities by reducing incarceration. The report noted that victims do not equate accountability with confinement, and that they want opportunities for young people to get what they need so they don’t engage in delinquent or criminal acts, including serving young people in the community.
My organization, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), runs a Chicago program that illustrates how communities can safely serve our young people within the community. The Choose to Change program is a partnership that blends intensive mentoring and group therapy to address our young peoples’ trauma. It targets young people who have experienced trauma (including victims or survivors of crime) and whose circumstances make them more likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime.
After 18 months, preliminary data shows the arrest rate for violent crimes among the participants was cut in half. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “How to End the Cycle of Violence in Chicago,” professor David Kirp wrote, “…the evidence from Chicago suggests that connecting adolescents who live in high-crime, high-poverty communities with stable, caring mentors and showing them how to reassess what are literally life-or-death decisions can turn their lives around.
These results demonstrate how unconditional caring, advocacy, positive social connection and recognizing the effects of trauma achieve the outcome we all want – reducing violence. The C2C program is done in the community, in the context of the lives and circumstances of the young people we serve, not in isolation in a facility far from, or even close to, home.
What works about the YAP approach is the focus on hiring people with lived experience and whose key expertise is an understanding of how to navigate through the neighborhoods where our young people live. The paid community mentors – YAP Advocates – share the cultural and social mores of their communities, have experienced similar losses and traumas, and in some cases engaged in similar delinquent acts as the youths themselves.
Because of this, the YAP advocates are the people most likely to engage young people and inspire change. They have credibility to say to a young person that, ‘while they may be acting rationally for their circumstances, there are other, better, safer ways to respond.’ Culturally affirming relationships are a much more powerful way to help young people navigate success than prisons, and are more effective at keeping young people, and the public, safe.
The research backs up that serving young people in the community isn’t just better for youth, but has a positive effect on community violence. New York University Sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that “as the number of community nonprofits rises, every kind of violence falls.” His research shows that in any city with 100,000 people, every new organization formed to address violence and building neighborhoods “led to about a 1 percent drop in violent crime and murder.”
As revealed in “Safe, Smart and Fair,” it can cost up to $300,000 a year to incarcerate a child, leaving the nonprofits that are instrumental in curbing violence grossly underfunded.
Imagine if we listened to victims, advocates and social scientists, devoting our resources to what the evidence says impacts public safety the most – investing in communities. If we are concerned with public safety and racial equity, we should do everything in our power to respond in any way other than prison, because we know prison doesn’t work.
To use our resources well, let’s direct them toward communities to help all our children succeed, and honor the suggestions of victims to do more, not less, for our young people.
Shaena Fazal is the chief of public policy, advocacy and external communications for Youth Advocate Programs.