OP-ED: Cities Step Up to Keep Kids Out of Juvenile Detention

headshot_LFurrAs the only city government official in the room during a series of meetings with juvenile justice policy experts and practitioners, Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel realized he had a key role to play in how local police interacted with the city’s young people.

During these meetings, as he says, the “infrastructure to change was being built,” and he had an “aha” moment, realizing that he should lead a policy shift. He is now spearheading the development of an evidence-based alternative to arrest program.

Mayors, city council members and other municipal leaders have not traditionally played a central role in juvenile justice reform. City leaders from across the country are now stepping up to the plate. The National League of Cities’ Municipal Leadership of Juvenile Justice Reform project is encouraging city leaders to become more involved and asking the organizations already involved in reform to include them and consider the role city leaders play as first responders and as direct links to communities, youth and families.

Local leaders have enormous power to improve the lives of youth in their communities, often while saving taxpayer money. In addition to Philadelphia, other communities have taken a developmentally-appropriate approach to young people involved in the juvenile justice system.

Cities, including Peoria, Ill., have implemented evidence-based alternatives to arrest protocols or police trainings that seek to improve relations between youth and officers. These cities are taking action in response to research on the immaturity, risk-taking and poor decision-making that are hallmarks of adolescence, and that can exacerbate both an alleged offense and encounters with law enforcement.

Several local governments have established community-based check-in and service centers, like the Baltimore City PACT Center. Youth supervised in this model program pre-adjudication do better than youth detained in the local detention center. Overall, evidence shows that holding youth accountable, while focusing on their social and emotional development, makes communities safer than the punitive policies on the books in many localities.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and other local governments have saved unnecessary detention and services costs by tailoring responses to youth based on how much risk that young person actually poses to the community, rather than relying on subjective decisions.

As evidence piles up that doing what works for youth also saves money, both in the short- and long- term, more municipal leaders are able to make the case for reforms. Cities will continue to increase their impact on juvenile justice reform as they learn about proven successes in peer cities and expand collaboration with practitioners, policymakers and advocates.

Laura Furr, Senior Associate of Juvenile Justice Reform in the Institute for Youth, Education and Families at the National League of Cities, furr@nlc.org

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