The ‘Next Frontier’ for Juvenile Justice: Reinvest in At-Risk Youth

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Photo courtesy Campaign For Youth Justice

There is no scarcity of research concluding that locking kids up for juvenile delinquency does little to teach correct behavior or prepare youth for successful adulthood. It’s not just  counterproductive; national and state-level findings reveal that it is also broadly racially discriminatory and a leech on the public purse.

In a new report, the Urban Institute argues that by repurposing public funds previously used on different elements of youth incarceration, jurisdictions will see decreases in youth delinquency and recidivism while building stronger communities and saving taxpayer dollars.

“Building a true continuum of care and opportunity for youth and families in their home communities to both prevent and address the root causes of illegal behavior requires substantial investment,” the report said.

“Particularly given that communities disproportionately impacted by youth incarceration often also experience concentrated disadvantage that creates structural barriers to youths’ success.”

Many jurisdictions have already taken this point to heart.

From 2006 to 2015, 24 states cut their youth detention rates in half in favor of evidence-based diversion and youth development programs, particularly for lower-level offenses.

Chipping away at youth incarceration rates, however, has brought new challenges and questions into sharp relief for justice system stakeholders and policymakers.

For one, national and state-level data show that as fewer youth land in juvenile detention, a larger share of those arrested and committed identified as Black, Hispanic, or American Indian.

And while the overall youth incarceration rates have declined over recent years, many government budgeteers seem to have warped priorities.

From 1980 to 2013, total state and local spending on corrections, including juvenile programs, increased by over 400 percent ($17-71 billion in real 2013 dollars). Texas led all states with an 850 percent  increase in corrections spending, while Massachusetts trailed at 149 percent.

A complex set of policy questions emerges from this contradictory fiscal picture.

How can jurisdictions reinvest their justice system resources in programs that help young people live successful lives while upholding accountability for wrongdoing? How can these redirected resources best serve communities most affected by the old model of incarceration?

And the perennial question: who’s paying for it?

Enter the Urban Institute, which believes it can answer on all counts.

A “Continuum of Care”

According to the Urban Institute report, these funds should be redirected to a web of youth development programs that represent a figurative “continuum of community-based care and opportunity.”

In contrast to residential programs such as juvenile detention, where youth are removed and largely isolated from their communities, the continuum consists solely of nonresidential programs that youth and families can access from their homes.

Urban outlined the framework for its work:

There is a pressing need to identify proven, promising, and innovative strategies for investing in community-based solutions and, moreover, to follow the lead of those closest to the challenges on the ground in developing and implementing tailored strategies. This is the next frontier of juvenile justice reform and crucial to the kind of transformational change that true justice demands.

The report, funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, draws from existing, replicable models and best practices outlined by juvenile justice experts and justice-involved people.

The continuum of care breaks into two broad clusters of services: those focusing on addressing the many factors contributing to delinquency and those empowering youth to live successful lives outside of the justice system context.

While many of these individual programs exist in isolation, they are generally used reactively; at-risk youth typically have accessed them after their initial contact with the justice system, perhaps after they were charged or detained. Urban argues that policymakers should shift to a proactive approach.

Justice-Facing Services

The first cluster includes treatment, prevention, and intervention. Whenever possible, these three-tiered efforts should divert youth from justice involvement into programs more suited to individual youth needs.

Personal challenges contributing to youth justice involvement can include mental illness, substance use, and familial conflict. They require careful, individualized treatment not suited to the resources of many detention environments. These treatments can be combined with educational programs for youth and their families about mental health, substance use, and other risk factors.

That said, policymakers should cautiously consider their implementation of diversion programs, as past TCR reporting has highlighted how they can create strong financial incentives to widen, rather than reduce, communities’ contact with the justice system.

Violence intervention and crisis response systems naturally build upon treatment and education programs, as they can step in during emergencies when prevention and education are not enough.


Illustration courtesy the Urban Institute

For example, a trained mental health professional might best a young person experiencing a mental health crisis, just as a social worker might best serve a young person considering physical retaliation against another. These interventions can be off-ramps from justice involvement for these at-risk youth. Interventions could also include restorative justice and trauma recovery programs that help address the complex needs of both victim and culprit after the commission of an offense.

The report elaborated:

Youth who are demonstrating normal adolescent behaviors are best supported entirely outside the juvenile justice system. For those who do require targeted intervention for harmful behavior, research has shown that community-based options are generally more effective than incarceration in reducing reoffending.

Although incarceration disconnects youth from critical family and social supports, interferes with prosocial development, and does a poor job of preventing reoffending, community-based programs that meet youth needs, build critical skills, and promote positive development can more effectively get youth back on track to successful adulthood.

Preparing Youth for Adulthood

In contrast, the second cluster includes youth mentorship, growth opportunities, and community development programs that prepare youth to live productive adult lives beyond justice-system involvement.

Ideally, youth and families would have access to a rich variety of supports and services outside the juvenile justice system so that it is not the only entry point for access and participation can continue beyond a youth’s involvement in the justice system. Services should be culturally appropriate, effective, and responsive to the evolving needs of youth and families.

In addition to services and resources to address underlying needs, a well-resourced continuum would advance community development strategies that expand educational, workforce, and enrichment opportunities.

Interestingly, Urban’s recommendations for growth opportunities and community development share a great deal of overlap with “social urbanism,” a set of urban development policies pioneered in Medellín, Colombia among its most historically marginalized neighborhoods, which radically transformed the city’s social sphere while contributing to a large decline in crime since the 1990s.

The fundamental principle of both is that by enhancing funding and public access to social resources such as healthcare, recreation, economic opportunity, vocational training and more, community members will experience a social uplift that naturally contributes to declines in social disorder.

But young people and their families could struggle to connect with these community-based resources without the proper mentorship. These support systems begin in the family unit but can be affirmed and strengthened by the guidance of community-based social workers when necessary.

Power of the Purse

The report does not leave policymakers scratching their heads in search of perpetual funding. In fact, many states and localities have already tapped into funding streams, with notable successes.

In 2016, the Kansas state legislature enacted SB 367, which severely limited the scope of youth incarceration in the state with the goal of decreasing youth justice involvement and saving money. It created the Juvenile Justice Improvement Fund, which created a ‘lockbox mechanism’ that diverted $12.3M saved from the changes in statutes into community-based youth programs during its inaugural year.

California Governor Jerry Brown, in contrast, used an executive budget strategy to avoid the petty competitions and pitfalls of each tight legislative budget cycle. In 2018, the governor allocated $37.3M to create the Youth Reinvestment Grant Program, by which the state would competitively award grants to localities seeking to implement “evidence-based, trauma-informed, culturally relevant, and developmentally appropriate diversion programs in under-served communities with high rates of juvenile arrests and high rates of racial/ethnic disproportionality within those juvenile arrests.”

Washington, D.C. and Virginia both reduced out-of-home commitments of youth to residential treatment programs, generating significant savings that they then reinvested in community-based services for youth.

States should also leverage the land value and physical space of closed detention centers, Urban argued. In 2016, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention identified 1,300 fewer active facilities from its previous count in 2000. These facilities could either be transformed into community-based program spaces or sold to generate revenue for reinvestment. Successful examples abound in Arizona, New York, Michigan, California, North Carolina, and Texas, according to Urban’s report.

There are also currently many potential federal funding streams available to states and localities, including: Title IV-E waivers under the Family First Prevention Act; Section 1115 and HCBS Medicaid waivers; the Crime Victims Fund established in the Victims of Crime Act; and the HUD Community Development Block Grant.

Yet administrators should be judicious in asking for medical funds, as they risk ‘medicalizing’ or pathologizing normal youth behavior.

According to the report:

Many programs supported by Medicaid and Child Welfare Waivers require a substance abuse, mental health, behavioral disorder, or intellectual disability diagnosis for youth to be considered eligible. It is important to ensure that creative funding strategies do not contribute to unnecessary diagnoses, particularly given the likelihood that this would disproportionately impact youth of color who are already overrepresented at every point in the juvenile justice process.

States and localities can also consider new taxes, the Pay for Success model, cannabis tax revenue, donations from anchor institutions with special tax statuses (e.g., universities and hospitals), participatory budgeting, and tax incentives for ‘opportunity zones’ under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Urban also recommended that state and local advocates work to build relationships with appropriations officials ahead of the budget cycle, and that they learn the often-technocratic language of appropriations. These efforts will help them to make more effective, concise fiscal arguments when each fiscal cycle arrives.

“Operating youth prisons sucks up the majority of [juvenile justice] funding,” Carmen Daugherty, policy director at Youth First Initiative, said in an interview with Juvenile Justice Information Exchange about the report.

“We want to bring those millions of dollars back to their communities.”

The Urban Institute study was written by Samantha Harvell, Chloe Warnberg, Leah Sakala, and Constance Hull.

Read the full report here.

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Please give us your comments.

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