Increasingly, juvenile justice advocates and system partners are calling for the closure of large, prison-like youth facilities. While these reforms are critically important given the research showing the dangers of confinement — particularly for low-risk youth — the practical reality is that reaching such a paradigm shift will not happen overnight.
In any jurisdiction, the effort will require a comprehensive strategy focused relentlessly on achieving public safety and positive youth outcomes. A full continuum of community-based services will need to be developed. Youth will need to be safely transitioned home. Buy-in from communities and stakeholders will need to be attained.
As we engage in these efforts, we must ask ourselves: What happens to the kids left in facilities in the meantime?
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, approximately 54,000 youth were placed in residential facilities in 2013, representing a 50 percent decline in the number of youth in placement since 1999. Unfortunately, as the overall numbers of youth in confinement have dropped, challenges at the facility level have seemingly increased.
Anecdotally, juvenile justice administrators and staff across the country report seeing higher percentages of high-risk, high-need youth residents. This includes young people with significant educational, mental health, substance use and gang involvement issues. More than ever, staff operating these facilities seek assistance to better serve these populations.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of research on “what works” for court-involved youth. Two strategies, in particular, are supported by the science on positive youth development: (1) helping youth develop skills and competencies; and (2) supporting meaningful, long-lasting connections to families and pro-social supports. If we can do those two basic things for youth, we stand a better chance of keeping them from further penetrating the justice system and getting them on the path to success.
It is widely recognized that, in general, facilities that are smaller in capacity, maintain homelike environments and are located close to youth’s homes are better suited for therapeutic and family-focused approaches. This is why moving away from the use of big, institutional “youth prisons” is so essential.
But for many jurisdictions, changing facilities’ physical plants or hardware — or replacing facilities altogether with smaller ones based in the community — will simply not be immediately feasible. Until the system is fundamentally realigned, it is incumbent on all system partners to do everything possible with the facilities that currently exist.
And there’s a lot that can be done. Education programs can be transformed into dynamic learning environments that align with guiding principles and equip youth for community success. Cognitive-behavioral interventions, which help kids improve their decision-making and have been proven to reduce recidivism, can be delivered.
Family engagement can be prioritized by including loved ones and supporters in facility programming and encouraging them to visit regularly (which is linked to improved youth behavior and academic performance). The facility’s physical space can be softened with the use of color, artwork and comfortable furniture. These strategies, and many others, can help facilities create healthier environments that foster positive staff-youth relationships, promote youth development and prepare youth for successful community re-entry.
Nevertheless, in my current capacity at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and my past experiences as co-coordinator of the National Center for Youth in Custody, I have too often seen well-intentioned facility improvement efforts fall short.
Two pitfalls to achieving sustainable reform are common: (1) initiatives are piecemeal and not intentionally linked to an overarching strategy based on core principles; and (2) administrators do not provide staff with adequate levels of training, tools and support.
Ultimately, transforming the way business is done within facilities is an exercise in culture change. If leadership cannot make the agency’s mission and philosophy permeate every element of daily practice, and equip and empower staff to carry out the work, any reform effort is doomed to fail.
For all these reasons, we at CJJR have partnered with the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators to develop the Youth in Custody Practice Model initiative, an effort designed to assist agencies to deliver high-quality services to youth in residential placement. The model itself is a comprehensive, research-based framework that details the practices agency staff must undertake to achieve positive outcomes for youth, families, staff and communities.
As part of the initiative, a team of field experts will provide up to three state or county juvenile correctional agencies (selected after a competitive application process) with 18 months of intensive training and technical assistance, including on-site and distance support, to develop and begin to implement strategic action plans in targeted facilities. It is our hope that through this process we can help agencies enhance the “footprint” of their existing facilities — working to align cultures and practices with what the research shows works.
Juvenile justice reform is multifaceted and can be achieved using different, but complementary, strategies. While moving away from the use of large institutions is important, it is equally imperative that we serve those youth remaining in custody as effectively as possible.
Michael Umpierre is a senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, Michael's experience includes co-coordinating the National Center for Youth in Custody, serving as the chief of staff for the District of Columbia's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and representing youth and adults as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.
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