Friday, March 14, 2014

Juvenile Justice Reforms Continuing – Let’s Keep the Momentum Going!

By Marc Schindler

This week, I was honored to participate in meetings where the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices launched a year-long “Learning Lab” for governors’ senior advisors and other high-level state officials on improving outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, with a focus on the Connecticut reform experience. How timely as JPI just recently recognized the one year anniversary of two groundbreaking reports by JPI that highlighted the encouraging trend toward reduced confinement of youth nationwide. In the year since the release of our reports, Common Ground: Lessons Learned from Five States that Reduced Juvenile Confinement by More than Half, and Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut, we are encouraged to see a continuation of the reform trends we documented. 

After decades of increases in the number of youth being locked up across our country, most of whom are disadvantaged youth of color, we are finally seeing continued progress and recognition that there is a better and more effective way of responding to poor choices by young people. As President Obama said during the launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a promising effort to help young men of color reach their full potential, “By making sure our criminal justice system doesn’t just function as a pipeline for underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, we can help young men of color stay out of prison and jail.”  Now is the time to make sure this progress continues!
Just released data published by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) show that fewer and fewer young people are incarcerated, and this trend has not made our communities any less safe. The data showed:

  • A continuing decline in the number of confined youth in the five states profiled in Common Gound. OJJDP’s data released through the Census of Residential Placement found that in each state profiled in Common Ground –- Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, Tennessee –  there was a continuing decline in the number of youth incarcerated. Between 2001 and 2011, these states reported declines in youth incarceration that ranged between 65 to 43 percent.
  • A continuing decline in the number of youth confined nationally.  The Census of Residential Placement also showed that the number of youth incarcerated nationally continued to decline, with a 41 percent decline over the decade (2001-2011).
  •  Juvenile arrests continued to decline as well, even while fewer youth are being locked up.  OJJDP’s recently released data on arrest trends (Juvenile Arrests 2011) showed that four out of five states saw a decline in youth arrested for violent crime. As has been demonstrated for years, particularly in JDAI sites, we can safely reduce the use of incarceration without a negative impact on public safety.

A special shout out to juvenile justice reforms in Connecticut, which are now influencing policy change around the country

During the year since we published Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes, the story of how Connecticut safely and effectively reduced reliance on incarceration and the transfer of youth into the adult system is drawing increased attention from policy makers and elected officials from around the country.

The report has also been used by policymakers to show how a juvenile justice system can be reformed to be more humane, benefit youth and families, improve public safety, help young people succeed, and reduce the transfer of youth to the adult system. In July, the report was featured in a congressional briefing hosted by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT). The briefing was moderated by Mike Thompson of the Council of State Governments, and participants included Robert Listenbee, Administrator of OJJDP; Mike Lawlor, Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, Connecticut; State Senator John Whitmire (D-TX); and Judge Linda Teodosio, Summit County Juvenile Court, Ohio.

The report has also been used and disseminated by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and advocacy organizations around the country to help policymakers choose better juvenile justice policies. 

As we all know, we still have far too many young people locked up in unsafe facilities, and too few receiving the types of effective services, supports and opportunities they need to succeed.  Having led the juvenile justice agency in Washington, D.C., I know first-hand the challenges of trying to transform a system from one that relies primarily on locking youth up into one that uses secure confinement as a last resort.  It’s not easy work, and our bureaucracies too often cling to the status quo default position of removing a youth from their home instead of doing the hard but more effective work of providing supports that will help a young person succeed. 

The trend of reducing the number of confined youth shows we are at least heading in the right direction, and creates opportunities to use our resources in fairer and more effective ways that will move us closer to our goals of supporting our youth and making our communities safer.

Marc is executive director of JPI.

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