Over the last two decades, the juvenile justice system has been celebrated for driving a decline in the use of confinement as lawmakers and practitioners changed policies and practices to move away from costly and ineffective use of secure facilities. This has resulted in a halving of the confined population and historic declines in youth crime rates. All of which are rightfully considered a success story.
However, when you dig a little deeper into the data, a more nuanced story emerges. Many of the reforms that reduced incarceration have been limited to reducing the system’s contact for those involved in nonviolent offenses. It is time for a shift in focus.
In September, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) presented findings from a new report “Smart, Safe, Fair: Strategies to Prevent Youth Violence, Heal Victims of Crime, and Reduce Racial Inequity.” The report calls for the justice reform field and the victims’ community to work together to expand community-based treatment for all youth regardless of offense, strengthen communities and families, and provide adequate resources to meet the needs of crime victims.
The research is clear that the community is the best setting to serve youth who have been convicted of a crime, regardless of the offense. Keeping kids close to home, providing services and support, and allowing them to engage with their families and experience positive peer associations results in significantly lower rates of reoffending. In addition to making everyone safer, youth can be treated in the community at a fraction of the cost of confinement and keeping them at home helps mitigate the damage caused by racially disproportionate policies and practices in the juvenile justice system.
Unfortunately, practice has not followed the research for those who have engaged in violent crime. Confinement in a secure facility remains the most common system response. This is problematic because the research has shown that youth who have committed a violent offense benefit from staying in the community and close to home just as much as those who have committed a nonviolent offense.
Public can be protected
Practitioners in the juvenile justice system know how to treat youth in the community for serious and violent offenses while also keeping the public safe. The obstacles are lawmakers and stakeholders who are unwilling to extend the benefits of community-based interventions to youth who have engaged in violence.
In some cases, these laws and policies neglect to consider an individual’s risk and need levels, but solely focus on the offense committed, which may trigger a mandatory term of confinement. This leads to the negative outcomes that we’ve seen far too often: high rates of reoffending, wasteful deployment of resources within the juvenile justice system and unconscionable rates of racial and ethnic disparities in the confined population.
To truly reduce youth violence, recidivism, mass incarceration and racial disparities, we must face the challenge of shifting youth convicted of violent offenses out of secure facilities and into the community. This is a view that is shared by many researchers, juvenile advocates, practitioners and, perhaps most importantly, victims of crime.
In the research process, JPI and NCVC convened a roundtable and focus groups, which echoed the public opinion polling that reveal many victims of crime believe that youth convicted of violent offenses can be effectively served in the community. To further address youth violence in the community, the needs of victims of crime must be adequately met.
In many cases, the crime victims recognized the fact that many youth who have committed a violent offense have themselves been victims of crime and are not receiving the trauma-informed care and services they need to heal. By continued reliance on incarceration and neglecting crime victims’ needs, the cycle of delinquency can result in more harm toward individuals and communities. Focusing on these issues differently, they believe, would create a safer, healthier society for everyone.
To do that, however, we must focus on changing the many laws, policies and practices still in place that prevent young people involved in violent crime from being served in the community. Only then will the juvenile justice system be altered so that fewer youth involved in violent crimes are confined, more crime victims’ needs are met and all of us can live in safer and fairer communities.
This column was written for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily.