As the nation’s perception of the juvenile justice system has evolved steadily over the last 20 years, states across the country have acted on many lessons learned from research and experience in reforming the way public agencies deal with children in conflict with the law. For many stakeholders, there is consensus that evidence-based practices seeking positive youth outcomes are the best way to improve public safety.
An emerging policy principle is this: imprisoned youth should be transferred to normative systems and environments at the earliest safe opportunity. Prisons are inherently false environments and inadequate tools for changing behaviors. By “normative” I refer to what is considered to be the usual or correct way of doing something – in this context, living a non-criminal life.
Positive outcomes for youth in conflict with the law require connections to community services, community members and community values. That includes the value of work.
Our entire country has been affected by the long economic downturn and the plight of millions of people who have been unemployed. But jobs are now increasing, and even some manufacturing is returning to the United States. This experience has taught all of us that job readiness is critical to achieving self-sufficiency for our citizens – young and old alike. For kids involved in the justice system, employment is clearly a positive outcome and a part of a normative approach and environment.
How do we create in young people the understanding that work is normal and desirable; that awaking at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. is necessary; that absences are not allowed and that you do not get to choose everything that you must do on the job?
One common system response is to organize summer jobs programs. Too many such efforts are created by finding unspent money in other government programs and slapping together a summer jobs program close to the end of the school year. Administrators scramble to find willing employers, and politics influences who gets the programs and whose kids get the jobs. Although not well planned, these summer efforts are well-intentioned, and any job experience will help the teenaged employee along his or her way to understanding that reliability and willingness to undertake job duties is a normal way to get ahead.
However, there are effective and evidence-based models for youth employment. YouthBuild, the U.S. Department of Labor’s extraordinarily successful approach to job readiness, is one. Youth who are school dropouts, including kids involved in juvenile justice systems, are provided with substance abuse treatment, GED preparation and real job skills. Volunteers and employees from the building trades and social services move students along a trajectory to finishing school and getting a job. This highly structured and well-financed approach produces thousands of new employees each year.
Not every community has YouthBuild, but all can learn from its lessons. Every community does have employers and business leaders who understand that their future workforce can be improved by early job readiness.
Ten years ago, “Operation Your Choice” was guided in my community by National Guard members and a retired Marine, Jim Butler. The program was a predecessor to today’s National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which intervenes in the lives of 16- to 18-year-old kids to instill values, life skills, education and self-discipline.
Jim Butler was very interested in the job futures for the kids, many of whom were referred to the program by the juvenile court. He approached a large drugstore chain, which has a huge distribution center in town. We invited the manager of that facility to become a member of the local juvenile justice/child welfare coalition. He readily agreed to allow the National Guard’s prevention program to hold its after school sessions in his facility. After a few months, adult employees volunteered as mentors and were allowed to engage in youth activities on company time. Eventually, the company agreed to hire interns from this group of justice involved at-risk kids. Everybody won.
We need to expand every jurisdiction’s approach to connecting at-risk kids with jobs. Why are jobs programs a summer-time afterthought instead of an integral approach to providing normative connections for kids in prevention, probation, prison and re-entry systems?
The successes of afterschool programs are well known and easily understood – involve at-risk kids in positive activities and they stay out of trouble. Jobs are positive activities and should be program goals. Of course, there are obstacles and risks – but employers of teenagers have encountered most all of them.
Collaboration is needed between justice system stakeholders and businesses in every community. Including the talents of normative institution stakeholders is necessary to the success of youth in conflict with the law and to the communities in which they live.