Positive Youth Justice: Curbing Crime, Building Assets

Underneath the tension-laden surface of national politics, there is growing agreement that the United States needs to rethink criminal justice, that the nation is over-reliant on expensive and ineffectual incarceration and short on other strategies that would lower the likelihood of continued criminal behavior.

When it comes to discussing how to address the behavior of juvenile offenders, the dialogue often starts with deficits. What is wrong with this young man? How can we fix that?

Santa Clara Juvenile Ranch classroom
A classroom at Santa Clara County Probation Department’s William F. James Ranch for juvenile offenders in Morgan Hill, California. Staff here strives to provide a therapeutic, home-like environment. Photo credit: Max Whittaker

Substance abuse, serious mental health disorders, family problems and a history of abuse. These are the problems that fuel the criminal behavior of some juveniles, but surely not all.

The reality is that most youth simply need someone to identify and build on their strengths, not only focus on their weaknesses. This is known as a positive youth justice (PYJ) approach, a belief that working on the interests and skills of an individual youth is the best way to steer them away from bad choices.

The model is most succinctly explained in a recent brief written by Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a noted juvenile justice researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a leading proponent of PYJ:

“The PYJ Model suggests that youth justice systems should focus on youths’ acquisition of two core developmental assets: learning/doing and attaching/belonging.

These two assets should be acquired and experienced by every youth within six distinct domains: work, education, relationships, community, health and creativity.”

The PYJ approach is derivative of the broader positive youth development concept of asset development, made popular by the late Peter Benson, CEO of the Search Institute from 1985 to 2011.

“If most young people in the system would respond to positive opportunities, what we need to do is have a way of occupying their time in a way that gets them through ages 14 to 24,” Butts said in an interview with The Chronicle. “Most will be fine.”

Several conservative leaders have suggested their support for rethinking the way American approaches nonviolent offenders, and the vast majority of juvenile delinquents are in that category. Republicans including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have spoken out in recent years about their desire to reduce the justice system’s reliance on incarceration.

Last year, Paul and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would make record expungement more attainable for juvenile offenders. Booker and fellow Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) also introduced the Better Options for Kids Act, which would provide small federal incentives to states that curbed their use of detention and incarceration.

With growing recognition of the shortcomings of a probation-or-incarceration, fix-what’s-wrong approach to juvenile justice, it might be PYJ’s time to shine. Already, more agencies are getting into the PYJ business.

“We’ve more than doubled the number of states we are in in the last 10 years,” said Shaena Fazal, national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs. “In the last 10 years we went from 55 to 100 programs and from 7 states to 20 states.”

Over the next six weeks The Chronicle will explore what an entire “PYD Juvenile Justice System” would look like. We will paint that exemplary portrait by writing stories that highlight established PYJ programs serving offenders at every point along the juvenile justice continuum.

These profiles capture the development and execution of local ideas that should be considered in more communities:

  • A community conferencing program that has successfully diverted youths from formal system involvement.
  • A community-based program that judges have come to rely on to keep serious offenders in the community as an alternative to incarceration.
  • A high-security juvenile facility in that has seen sharp declines in recidivism since embracing an asset-development approach.
  • A mom-and-pop organization in that uses boat building and bike repair to engage juveniles coming home from incarceration.
  • A book club that dares to engage the least-served youths: those who are jailed and imprisoned in adult facilities.
Waterside Workshops teaches local kids to fix their bikes.
Barasa, 15, and Edwardo, 15, learn bike repair at Waterside Workshop’s Open Shop, a mom-and-pop organization serving juveniles after release from incarceration in Berkeley, California. Photo credit: Brian Rinker

Apart, these PYJ programs and ideas can and have yielded results for the communities where they have taken root. Who knows what stitching these programs together in an entire continuum of positive youth justice could yield?

“If we invested a fraction of what we pay to lock [juveniles] up on exploring how they could realize their potential and be contributors to their communities instead of recipients of services, we’d be in a win-win situation,” said Fazal.

John Kelly is the founding editor of The Chronicle of Social Change. 

Photos by Max Whittaker and Brian Rinker.

This series was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation, which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.

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  1. Hi John, I would love to share our theory of Positive Youth Development (PYD) with your readers it is similar to the Postive Youth Justice model and provides a parsimonious approach the PYD paradigm.

    Wm. Chuck Jackson, Ph.D.

  2. Hello – I’m curious to learn more about the example of the bike building program and its connection to PYJI. I’m interested in learning about any intersection that the specific program had on the youth living healthier lifestyles in terms of riding bikes as well as decreasing interest in behavior that would put them in harmful situations. Thanks for any suggestions on where to gather more about this story.

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