Why the Trump Administration Would Be Wise to Invest in Juvenile Justice

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This country and its juvenile justice systems are facing an important set of transitions as we enter 2017. A new president is about to take office who is committed to taking the country in a different direction.

While most of the policies his administration will promote are outside the scope of this column, they will undoubtedly impact our ability to build the best and most effective juvenile justice systems across the nation. How investments are prioritized will translate to whether there are resources available from the federal government for programming and other forms of support for disadvantaged children, youth and families.

Other decisions will even more directly impact the federal government’s effectiveness in supporting strong policies and practices in those juvenile justice systems across the country. A prime example is whether the executive and legislative branches of the federal government will support the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and a related appropriation.

In the face of this uncertainty, we need to be able to answer the question as to whether there are smart federal investments to make in the juvenile justice arena. This is the right question to ask, and we are in a much better position to answer it than we were a mere 10 to 15 years ago.

I recall a question posed to me by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1995: Which jurisdictions in the United States had pulled together all the elements of an effective juvenile justice system? My answer was that while I could name a number of jurisdictions that were instituting best practices in part of their juvenile justice systems, there were none that had put together all the pieces of the effective juvenile justice system puzzle.  

There were some, for example, that had done a good job in adopting more effective assessment processes and others that had improved their juvenile correctional practice. I advised her that at the federal level we needed to do a better job of helping jurisdictions create a more holistic and effective juvenile justice system, from arrest, detention and diversion, to community supervision, residential treatment and reentry. We needed to support them in learning how to engage youth and families in a different manner, utilizing a more youth- and family-centered and strength-based approach, which was already being used in the mental health arena through systems of care.

That conversation and others within the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U.S. Department of Justice led to greater investments and the strengthening of the federal role around juvenile justice policy and practice — and over the past two decades a sea change in what we know and how we institute policy and practice across the country. This work was supported by a number of national foundations, but none with the level of investment or ability to shape national policy like the OJJDP.  

The result has been a tremendous reduction in juvenile arrests and improved outcomes for youth involved in those systems, accomplished through improvements in diversion, detention and probation practices, as well as in how we work with youth in placement.  There is a better understanding of how to put the pieces of the effective juvenile justice system puzzle together, implement them with fidelity and achieve improved outcomes for our most challenged and challenging youth.

So what does this puzzle look like when all the pieces are assembled correctly?

The front end of the system starts with sound policies around the decision-making process as whether to bring youth into the juvenile justice system. This recognizes the need to use validated screening and assessment tools to identify a youth’s risk to reoffend and needs related to their delinquent behavior. This helps well-trained staff to identify both the correct level and type of intervention, if any, that is required to address the youth’s behavior. Work done by the National Youth Screening and Assessment Partners and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency has helped strengthen national practice in this area.  

What we have learned in this regard is that ensuring that we don't under- or overserve youth is key to our success. This front-door focus reflects the strong work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation around the appropriate use of detention and the need to, whenever possible, keep youth in their homes, schools and communities while we work to address their needs; that overdosing a youth can cause more harm than good.

Indeed, Florida has found through the research around the youth in their juvenile justice system that both under- and overserving youth lead to higher recidivism rates. The work of the MacArthur Foundation around the appropriate use of diversion has also helped enhance this area of policy and practice across the country.

For those youth who need more formal involvement in the juvenile justice system in order to receive the appropriate level of services and supervision, we need to ensure they are able to access services that are evidence-based without moving too deeply into the system. The same holds true for youth needing a more intensive intervention in a residential setting, making certain that youth are placed in the least restrictive environment for the length of time needed to support their treatment, and receiving high-quality services while in care and during reentry.

The work of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University (CJJR), the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University, the Public Welfare Foundation, Justice Policy Institute and the Campaign for Youth Justice has greatly enhanced policy and practice in this area, particularly around the need to reduce the transfer of youth into the adult criminal justice system. Further supporting these efforts is the work being done by the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Juvenile Law Center to enhance access to counsel.

As noted earlier, there have been other case management enhancements, including using more developmentally appropriate and cognitively based methods in probation supervision. The work of the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute in this arena is notable.

There is also a growing movement to engage and empower families in the process, supported greatly by the efforts of the Vera Institute of Justice. Additionally, there has been a much needed and higher level of inquiry around the disproportionate representation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system, supported by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and the W. Haywood Burns Institute.

Similar advances have been made around approaching juvenile justice practice in a multisystem way. The Crossover Youth Practice Model, a CJJR initiative, is one key example of a research-based approach that has been implemented in more than 95 counties in the country to better serve youth who are involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Systems have also enhanced policies addressing school suspension and expulsion, and the delivery of education and behavioral health supports while involved in any level of the juvenile justice system. The CSG Justice Center has helped to shine a light on the negative consequences of overly punitive school discipline policies through its research on this issue, including a study of policies in Texas. (All of these and more have been captured through CJJR’s Certificate Programs, intensive learning opportunities held annually on the campus of Georgetown University.)

In short, we know better today than ever before in our history how to calibrate our response to juvenile offending and align that response utilizing the tools we have to assess risk and need, match youth to the appropriate level of supervision and services, and provide those services in a high-quality manner.

The results of this research and data-driven body of work have been profound. Arrest rates are down and we have far fewer youth coming in contact with the juvenile justice system and in placement. Indeed, the smart investments over the past 20 years have yielded these results, investments we need to build upon, not turn away from; which is why the federal role becomes so important.

Having been the administrator of the OJJDP from 1994 to 2000, I know firsthand the power of that office to help lead and support system improvement. The work undertaken through the leadership of Attorney General Reno in those years resulted in a national focus on research-driven, community-based and developmentally appropriate responses to juvenile crime — both in how best to prevent and reduce it. The OJJDP is the preeminent organization in this country focusing every day on youth at risk of becoming, or already involved in the juvenile justice system.

So we sit here today at a point of transition as a new president assumes office on Jan. 20, and we will soon learn the priority juvenile justice will receive in his administration.  Hubert H. Humphrey once said that the “moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Moving forward, the wise course of action will be to continue and grow the investment in the federal role in sound juvenile justice policy and practice. The future of our most vulnerable children, youth and families depends upon it.

Shay Bilchik is research professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

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