The juvenile justice system has proven to be ineffective, harmful and excessively expensive. Overwhelming evidence shows that involvement in the juvenile justice system in and of itself produces negative outcomes for young people.
When the first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, its purpose was to create a system separate from the criminal court to meet youth needs rather than punish their acts. Since that time, the juvenile justice system in America has failed to fulfill this vision. Instead, it is plagued by high recidivism rates, it often causes further harm to youth, and it carries enormous costs.
In a phrase, the juvenile justice system can be successfully reformed if we reduce, improve and reinvest: significantly reduce the size and the number of youth in the system; thoroughly improve the conditions and services provided to a smaller number of youth who remain in the system; and use the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from a massive reduction in the size of the system to reinvest in the youth, their families and the communities where they live.
In the past 15 years, there have been tremendous strides made toward the “reduce” portion of that larger vision. National reform initiatives championed and funded by foundations, local reforms led by system leaders and state reforms fought for by advocates have all contributed to a 60 percent reduction in youth incarceration in the United States.
According to data collected by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the number of delinquency cases declined by 42 percent throughout the country from 2005 to 2014. But according to this data, there are still more than 450,000 youth in the U.S. on probation or ordered to an out-of-home placement by the juvenile court.
Even with these changes, the juvenile justice system is still in need of transformation. Every point along a young person’s experience with the justice system should change, from the initial engagement all the way through incarceration and re-entry. Across the system, there are proven models that jurisdictions can implement. There may not be a fully reformed, beginning-to-end model, but examples from places across the country can be used to understand what a totally reformed system could look like.
The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform recently released a report, A Positive Youth Justice System, that lays out the following 10 steps that a juvenile justice system can take to reduce, improve and reinvest:
Strive to keep youth out of the system. Only engage/provide supervision to the small fraction of youth who are a genuine risk to public safety.
Collaborate with youth and families. Develop youth case plans collaboratively with the youth and family, and share ownership of the plan.
Build on strengths and address needs. Provide services, supports and opportunities to youth and families that build on their strengths and address their needs.
Community-based organizations should take the lead. Treat the system as a broker of services and a quality assurance mechanism, leaving direct case management and youth engagement to community-based organizations.
Don’t lock youth up. Use pre-adjudication detention sparingly and briefly, and only for youth who are a genuine risk to public safety.
Keep any probation time short. Cap the length of supervision/probation at 10 months if the youth has not had a new arrest.
Keep youth in their homes and communities. Use out-of-home placement, which usually means large, privately operated residential facilities, only when a youth has been determined to be a genuine risk to public safety and/or their home is proven unsafe.
Incarceration is harmful. Replace large juvenile prisons with small rehabilitative facilities close to home. Use incarceration after a youth’s adjudication (court process) very rarely, and solely for youth who are a genuine risk to the public safety, have been adjudicated for a serious offense, and the system has exhausted all community-based alternatives. When incarceration is necessary, use only small, rehabilitation and education focused facilities that are close to home.
Provide exceptional care. If a youth is ordered to out-of-home placement or secure confinement, provide quality education, rehabilitation, treatment and health care.
With a significant reduction in the size and number of youth in the system, use the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to reinvest in youth, their families and the communities in which they live.
A system based on the tenants of positive youth development will not harm youth, will keep communities safe and will utilize public resources effectively. When county and state juvenile justice and probation systems employ these 10 transformative steps, they will engage and incarcerate far fewer youth, reduce racial and ethnic disparities and accrue sizeable cost savings than can be reinvested in communities.
David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. He is the former chief probation officer of Alameda County in California and the former deputy commissioner of probation in New York City.