This post originally appeared on JJIE's ideas and opinions page May 21, 2014.By Jason Ziedenberg
The two big trends to watch in American youth justice policy have focused on reducing youth incarceration, and moving young people from adult prisons and jails into a reformed youth justice system.
These are positive trends that the field needs to build on, but it’s too soon to pop the champagne. Too many states still have direct file laws on the books where youth automatically end up in the adult system by their charge, Raise-the-Age efforts in a couple of states are slow to take hold, and as budget-strained states close youth facilities, the field faces new challenges in building, funding and sustaining the continuum needed to meet young people’s needs.
These challenges should not be seen as roadblocks in places like New York, California, North Carolina, Texas, Florida and a dozen other states where large parts of the reform agenda have yet to be fulfilled. If these states are looking for yet one more example that our broader youth justice vision can be achieved, you need only to go “north.”
In 2003, the Canadian federal government replaced the antiquated Youth Offenders Act — Canada’s equivalent of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act — with a new law. Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), the 10 provinces and two territories sought to implement a youth justice vision that recognizes young people’s unique adolescent development needs, divert youth from the justice system and meet their needs through other youth serving systems, expand the options that could serve as alternatives to youth prisons and improve rehabilitation and re-entry services for those few youth in locked custody. The provinces received modest funding from the federal government to implement the new law, but the 10 provinces were largely left to align their work with the YCJA on their own dime.