When the Annie E. Casey Foundation started the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in the 1990s tough-on-crime era, politicians were labeling teen offenders “superpredators” and states were making it easier to prosecute kids as adults. Rates of juvenile detention were skyrocketing. Nearly three decades later, JDAI’s proposition that locking youth up neither improves their behavior nor protects public safety has been borne out, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Juvenile detention populations have been halved in more than 300 counties across 40 states and Washington, D.C., that have adopted JDAI. Detention admissions are down 57 percent. In most places, crime has continued to decline.
Today, “JDAI no longer devotes all, or even most, of its energy to detention reform,” Nate Balis of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, told JDAI’s annual conference last week in Seattle. What’s next for juvenile justice reform? Overhauling probation, tackling the persistent over-representation of minority youth and increasing diversion are key areas for deeper reform, Balis said. It’s also “time for all JDAI sites to … rethink their purpose of detention,” he said. “The onus is now on us to justify why any young person should be locked up.” In the U.S., “we give probation to everyone,” Balis said. More than 60 percent of adjudicated youth receive probation, including many with first-time misdemeanors. Conventional probation doesn’t work, he said, “and it is actually harmful for youth at low risk for rearrest.” Casey has begun working with jurisdictions to reduce the number of youth placed on probation and to move away from the traditional compliance-based model to one focused more on incentives and positive youth development.