OP-ED: Community Engagement as a Key to Juvenile Justice Reform

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Juliana StrattonForty percent of youth who are incarcerated in the United States are incarcerated for low-level offenses and technical violations. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, such offenses include drug possession, possession of alcohol, truancy and status offenses. The overincarceration of youth for low-level offenses has been proven to be ineffective in reducing recidivism and has been costly for states.

The cost of youth incarceration exceeds $100,000 annually per youth for most states and jurisdictions in the country, according to “Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration,” the report published by the Justice Policy Institute. This continued reliance on detention also negatively affects youth development by disrupting communal and familial bonds.

As juvenile justice advocates and reformers push for community-based alternatives to detention for court-involved youth, juvenile justice stakeholders must work to build relationships with community stakeholders. Assessing community capacity and garnering support for such policies requires that community stakeholders share their perspectives and ideas on resources and how to best meet the needs of court-involved youth in light of such assets.

An effective juvenile justice system must rely on community- and family-centered diversion and intervention strategies, and less on incarceration. To do this, juvenile justice stakeholders must work with community stakeholders to prevent youth from entering the system, support youth while in the system and help youth successfully reintegrate back into the community post-release.

Juvenile justice stakeholders must recognize that every community has a key role in providing supportive services and resources for justice-involved youth and their families. Communities have a unique positioning to impact the outcomes of youth, families and ultimately public safety.

One way that Cook County Justice for Children (CCJC) has fostered community collaboration is by hosting community cafés to generate concrete ideas from juvenile justice and community stakeholders about how to best meet the needs of court-involved youth. CCJC is an independent nonprofit organization that is committed to promoting increased transparency and public reporting by the juvenile court.

Based on findings from two recently released reports (“Enhanced Transparency in the Cook County Juvenile Court: A Pathway to Reform,” and “What can the Cook County Juvenile Court do to improve its ability to help our youth?) CCJC’s cafés provide a safe space for making plans that help youth, as well as recommendations for how the juvenile court can better partner with community toward that end.

The purpose of the community cafés is to share findings from research reports, garner feedback from the local community and facilitate collaboration that supports positive change within the juvenile court. CCJC has hosted cafes in communities that have high juvenile arrest rates. Participants include community members, parents, youth advocates, judges, probation officers and court personnel.

To foster dialogue, one-page infographics outlining the recommendations of the research reports are distributed. Participants answer two rounds of questions and summarize key themes and best ideas, which are harvested to develop broader policy recommendations.

Incarcerating youth who commit low-level offenses is ineffective and costly. To effectively reform the juvenile justice system, community stakeholders must be invited to the table and taken seriously as experts on community assets and resources, as well as experts on the needs of the youth in their community.

The call for community-based alternatives to detention is bolstered by including community voices — including youth and their families — in these discussions. This is how we bridge the gap between communities and juvenile justice stakeholders. This is how we create accessible and viable community-based alternatives to detention.

Juliana Stratton, Esq. is executive director of Cook County Justice for Children in Chicago. She previously served as the executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council and has more than 20 years of experience as a mediator, administrative law judge and facilitator of large group dialogues.

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3 thoughts on “OP-ED: Community Engagement as a Key to Juvenile Justice Reform

  1. What do you do about those who can not communicate through writing? Those that are illiterate?

  2. Pingback: Re-Examining Juvenile Incarceration; News Roundup | Reclaiming Futures

  3. Students at the University of Maryland through the student-run group The Voice strive to do just what this article is talking about!

    We correspond through a pen pal program with the incarcerated youth at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center who are part of the Maya Angelou Charter School. In the correspondence, we exchange poetry to promote expression, voice, and connection among those in the juvenile justice system and the larger community.

    Check out the poems and how we are advocating for community involvement and juvenile justice reform at http://www.thevoicejuvenilejustice.com