President Obama recently proclaimed October 2016 as National Youth Justice Awareness Month. The proclamation itself offers a thoughtful overview of the state of juvenile justice in the United States and the various ways the federal government is supporting efforts to improve outcomes for youth, families and communities.
The proclamation is also a call to action to shape and operate a justice system that is fair, equitable and effective. This includes steps that should be taken at the federal level, such as the desperately needed reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. In the face of a looming new administration in Washington and a new Congress, the proclamation is an important reminder that we as a nation must invest more than ever in juvenile justice and in the systems and communities that support our youth.
Of course, ultimately the administration of juvenile justice occurs at the state, local and tribal levels. Thus, to honor National Youth Justice Awareness Month, states, counties, localities and tribes should consider the themes and ideas present in the president’s proclamation and ask themselves: How are we doing in those areas? What are we doing well? What can we do better?
Here are some salient excerpts from the proclamation:
“As a society, we must strive to reach these children earlier in life … [W]e must engage young people before they find themselves locked into a path from which they cannot escape.”
Prevention is key. Too often by the time youth touch the justice system we have missed multiple opportunities to intervene and impact the trajectory of their lives. Even worse, sometimes systemic practices — whether at schools, group homes or other settings — actually push youth to the justice system when alternative approaches are warranted.
For example, as detailed in the seminal report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” when a youth is expelled or suspended, his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system increases significantly.
System officials and partners should ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to essential preventive efforts in the arenas of education, behavioral health and positive youth development. They should also strive to determine the primary drivers to the justice system and implement targeted strategies to address them. These are issues we explore at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in our School-Justice Partnerships Certificate Program, an intensive training program offered in partnership with the American Institutes for Research that is designed to aid jurisdictions develop initiatives to enhance educational and positive youth outcomes, including efforts to stem the flow of youth from schools to the justice system.
“Children of color, particularly black and Hispanic males and Native American youth, continue to be overrepresented across all levels of the juvenile justice system.”
Despite increased focus on the problem in recent years, the fact remains that youth of color are overrepresented and face disparities in the justice system compared to their white counterparts. As the proclamation suggests, statistics show that disparities exist at every stage of case processing, including arrest, referral to court, diversion, detention, petition, adjudication and disposition.
Reducing racial and ethnic disparities is undoubtedly a major challenge. Yet justice system staff and partners should take solace in the fact that tangible strategies exist to tackle the issue. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy’s (CCLP) “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Reduction Practice Manual” offers several such insightful approaches, including but not limited to: regular collection, analysis and monitoring of data; use of objective criteria and decision-making tools, and the implementation of culturally responsive policies and practices. Through our Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice Certificate Program, which we co-host with CCLP, we have seen jurisdictions make promising strides in this arena.
“We have also seen too many of our youth held in solitary confinement while incarcerated, which can lead to devastating, long-term psychological consequences.”
In recent years, systems have become more acutely aware of the dangers and harms imposed by the use of solitary confinement (also known as disciplinary isolation or room confinement) on children. State, county, local and tribal officials should follow President Obama’s lead in banning solitary confinement in federal facilities and implement alternatives to disciplinary isolation in detention and commitment facilities. The Stop Solitary for Kids Campaign, an initiative we co-sponsor with CCLP, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) and the Justice Policy Institute, is one key resource available to the field.
On a larger scale, solitary confinement represents a type of correctional practice that has been proven to be ineffective — one that relies on control and surveillance, as opposed to engagement and relationship building between staff and youth. States, counties, localities and tribes that operate facilities must avoid such correctional approaches and instead serve youth in developmentally appropriate ways, focusing heavily on therapeutic, skill-building efforts.
Our experience with the Youth in Custody Practice Model initiative, which we co-direct with CJCA, teaches us that juvenile correctional agencies will benefit from shaping practices directly on the research on what works.
“Investing in our communities and our kids makes sense, and if we recognize that every child deserves to remain connected to their families and communities, we can ensure youth who come in contact with the law can have a chance at a brighter future.”
Nearly all youth who touch the juvenile justice system will return home. Thus, it is incumbent on all system staff and partners to ensure that we do all we can to position youth to succeed in their communities. This includes helping youth in custody plan early and often for reentry, and linking them to needed supports in critical domains, such as education, employment and health.
This also means dedicating resources to fund community-based services that demonstrate positive outcomes. For years, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy has published benefit-cost analyses on many of these effective programs.
Equally important is that systems prioritize family engagement. As set forth in “Identifying, Engaging and Empowering Families: A Charge for Juvenile Justice Agencies,” a publication we developed with the Vera Institute of Justice, system staff and partners must recognize the body of research that shows that outcomes for system-involved youth are improved when families are engaged in the process. Agencies and partners can enhance family engagement by embracing a broad definition of “family” that includes a wide network of the youth’s supporters, giving families a meaningful role in case planning, connecting families directly to services and supports themselves, and empowering them to share their insights to improve systems.
National Youth Justice Awareness Month offers an excellent occasion for system officials and partners to examine their own policies and practices, and develop strategies to address any gaps. As President Obama says in his proclamation, let’s use this time to “come together to ensure all young people are supported, nurtured, and provided an opportunity to succeed.”
Shay Bilchik is research professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
Michael Umpierre is a faculty member at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.