The youth workforce development and juvenile justice reform fields have a lot in common and similar goals: They are both working to provide services and enhanced resources to increase positive life outcomes for vulnerable youth.
Despite this fact, my experience has been that far too often people in the two fields don’t work together, or talk about their common goals. Previously, I was a public defender representing youth in Baltimore’s juvenile court and helping to run the juvenile justice agency in Washington.
When I asked my clients what they needed to get back on the right track, almost all the youth I talked with said the same thing: a job, or the tools to get a job. To achieve that goal, young people need to continue their education. These young people typically want the same thing we all want: the ability to have a good job and make enough money to support ourselves and our families.
A report released last week can help us focus on the goal of connecting young people to work.
In the report, “Youth Employment Matters! Strengthening the Youth-To-Work Pipeline Through High-Quality Youth Employment Opportunities,” the Urban Alliance calls for investments in programs that connect young people to employment opportunities, job skills and training. Urban Alliance, an organization that prepares youth from under-resourced communities in Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and Northern Virginia for the work world and a life of self-sufficiency, reported that:
- Millions of young Americans lack the skills, knowledge and experiences needed to succeed in school or in jobs: For about 6.7 million youth, we failed to give them the tools to earn high school diplomas, obtain post-secondary education or connect with the workforce.
- The nation’s slow recovery from the economic crisis of 2008-2009 has increased the severity and consequences of the job skills gap: Between 2000 and 2011, employment rates fell to 24 percent for teens aged 16-19 — the lowest employment rate in the country in more than 60 years.
- From an economic perspective, the opportunity costs of disengaged youth are staggering: Each young person who disconnects from school or work costs an estimated $704,020 over his or her lifetime in lost earnings, lower economic growth, lower tax revenues and higher government spending.
The research on justice-involved youth shows that lack of employment is one of the biggest predictors of justice system involvement and unsuccessful re-entry. And research has shown that access to employment and job training opportunities can help youth avoid a lifetime of negative justice-related consequences. (See Employment, Wages and Public Safety).
Having young people engaged in work and training opportunities can also enhance their overall educational experience, help reduce high school dropout rates and increase transition to college. For that reason, programs like Urban Alliance should be a critical part of the juvenile justice arsenal to help disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
As a former public defender, I am also painfully aware of how important workforce connections are for young people involved in the justice system. In case after case as a defender, I saw how justice-involved youth would have benefited by connecting to quality employment programs. Such programs would have also helped courts keep youth out of the system after an initial contact, and support their transition back to the community.
Instead of spending money on incarcerating youth, we should be investing in programs that give young people meaningful employment experiences, using that as a hook to encourage them to graduate high school and go to college. The justice reform community needs to lend its voice to encourage not only policymakers, but the business community, to take a more active role in providing employment opportunities for our young people. We can make the case to the business world that these investments have the potential to reduce the long-term costs to our communities and result in improved public safety, a stronger workforce and better outcomes for everyone.
As Vice President Joe Biden praised the release of the Urban Alliance report last week, he noted the importance of connecting youth "to in-demand fields such as information technology and business." He pointed out that the information technology field will need 1.4 million new workers in the next decade, and are vital to our national economic future. Biden called for bigger investments and more connections to organizations like Urban Alliance to realize this future.
We need to heed the vice president’s call. The juvenile justice field needs to build a stronger alliance with employment advocates to promote policies and programs that help lift our young people up and not subject them to the lifetime consequences associated with justice system involvement.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and former general counsel, chief of staff and interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.