The juvenile justice system in the United States is ineffective, harmful and extremely expensive. It does not work, it makes youth worse, and it costs too much.
The traditional correctional model of juvenile justice is punitive and adversarial. Youth are removed from their neighborhoods, sometimes for minor infractions; the community is not involved in the decisions, and badly needed resources are wasted on a failed approach.
Numerous studies have found that involvement in the juvenile justice system, even while controlling for other factors, causes youth to have worse outcomes. One study found that for youth who commit nonviolent crimes (the majority of youth in the system) doing nothing creates better outcomes than placing them in the juvenile justice system. Another study that rigorously examined the effects of the juvenile justice system found that incarceration itself resulted in “large decreases in the likelihood of high school completion and large increases in the likelihood of adult incarceration.”
Not only is the system failing, it is extremely expensive. California spends more than $200,000 annually to incarcerate a single youth in a state facility and counties spend on average $135,000 per year for a detention bed. A study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute found that the national average cost to incarcerate a youth is nearly $150,000.
Most young people in the system come from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, substandard schools and high unemployment. When young people exhibit behavior that is often reflective of their environment, they are plucked out of their neighborhood, sent to an ineffective juvenile facility for up to year or more and then returned to their resource-deprived community.
In many small neighborhoods within areas with high concentration of poverty and crime, there can easily be a 15 square-block radius with 20 youth in the juvenile justice system. With an average annual cost of $150,000 per youth, $3 million is spent every year on youth in such a neighborhood, with little if any going into that community.
What if those funds were reinvested in the youth, their family and the community while using restorative justice practices to effect real transformation?
A paradigm shift is desperately needed in the administration of youth justice. I have worked in the field of youth development and juvenile justice for the past two decades. As a teenager I personally experienced the system. Later I was a correctional administrator. For many years I have dreamed about an entirely new system, or rather one that goes back to the roots of how indigenous and ancient civilizations administered justice — in the village or tribe with a council of elders.
That idea has evolved into the Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board (NOAB). The J.M. Kaplan Fund in New York has recently awarded my organization an innovation grant to pilot this idea.
The NOAB would consist of community residents, including business owners, community leaders, clergy, youth, victims of crime, family members of system-involved youth and others. It would receive referrals from community members who have been a victim of an offense or involved in an incident that they want the NOAB to address. The NOAB will also get referrals directly from law enforcement as a diversion from formal processing in the juvenile justice system. The ultimate goal is to transform the juvenile justice system and entirely eliminate the use of the formal system as we know it in these neighborhoods.
When there is an identifiable and willing victim, community plans will include restorative justice. Restorative circles will be facilitated with the youth, the victim of their actions, the youth’s family and community members, including NOAB members.
A few neighborhoods in California Bay Area cities have been identified for initial implementation. Many complicated details and challenges are currently being worked out with community leaders, police departments and juvenile justice administrators.
The goal is for Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Boards to give communities control of the youth justice system. NOABs can take the millions of dollars wasted every year in a small neighborhood on ineffective incarceration and reinvest those resources for community development and youth achievement.
David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.