Juvenile Justice Reform

Juvenile Justice Reform
Juvenile Justice Reform

NLC supports and informs city leaders and stakeholders in improving public safety and reforming the juvenile justice system to encourage the use of evidence-based practices and ensure the fair treatment of all youth.

By identifying proven local practices and translating those into concrete steps cities can take, we work to empower cities to take a more comprehensive role in the national movement to improve the juvenile justice system.

Getting Started

City leaders and juvenile justice reformers alike want to create juvenile justice systems that are evidence-based, fair and more effectively hold youth accountable and help them become successful, productive adults.  Below are some concrete areas of overlap between the principles of Models of Change and the progress local leaders have already made toward a better juvenile justice system.

Ensure Fair Treatment for All Youth
Despite efforts across the country to ensure that all youth are treated equally, evidence continues to show that decision-makers in the juvenile justice system treat black and brown young people more harshly than white young people. However, hope and momentum are building based on a rededication of decades-old efforts and acceptance by many that reform must take place at every level of the system and dismantle deeply entrenched policies and practices. By setting local goals and measuring progress using the most locally-specific data possible, Hartford, Conn. has been able to make a concrete difference in the successful re-entry of youth by ensuring that the demographics of youth admitted to their summer jobs program matches the demographics, including juvenile records and foster care placements, of their youth population.

Improve Public Safety Based on Evidence of Effectiveness
Research shows that holding youth accountable while focusing on their social and emotional development makes communities safer than implementing the punitive policies in place in many areas. A punitive juvenile justice system, i.e. one that uses shackles, confinement and public criminal records, increases the risk that a young person will commit future, more violent crimes. Cities that strive to meet the needs of individual families and young people through community-based services reduce the risk of future harm to the community. The Baltimore City PACT (Pre-Adjudication Coordination and Training) Center improved outcomes for youth held in the community before trial rather than the local detention center.

Increase Efficiency and Cost-Savings through Rational Reforms
In a resource-strapped economy, tailoring expenditure of dollars to the most efficient and effective use of those dollars is the most rational course of action. However, in criminal and juvenile justice, that has not been the trend for the last few decades, so much so that one in every 100 Americans is incarcerated.  The most effective recent reforms tailor evidence-based responses to youth by analyzing how much risk that young person poses to the community, rather than acting on a subjective “gut feeling,” and have saved local governments like Jefferson Parish, La. unnecessary detention and services costs. 

Base Policies on the Developmental Realities of Adolescence
Adolescence is a developmental period characterized by immaturity, risk-taking and poor decision-making, and reforms should be made with this reality in mind. These issues often come to the forefront at the very beginning of a youth’s involvement with the court system – interactions with police. Taking this into account, several communities have applied evidence-based alternatives to arrest protocols and police trainings that seek to reduce the risk to both youth and officers during encounters in the community, thereby improving outcomes for youth charged with offenses such as shoplifting and intra-familial disputes.

Law Enforcement Tools

Local law enforcement is usually the first point of contact between a city’s young people and the juvenile justice system. City leaders can increase public safety and improve outcomes for young residents by helping police develop objective decision-making tools to divert youth from the system in lieu of arrest for low-level offenses.

Police officers have multiple opportunities to divert youth away from arrest. Cities across the nation have used data and objective assessment criteria to reduce arrests of youth in a developmentally appropriate way. NLC supports cities' reform efforts to ensure the first point of contact between youth and police does not lead to unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Diversion programs, which are often developed by municipal police departments, are systems that allow low-level offenders to avoid criminal charges and convictions. These programs hold youth accountable for offenses while keeping them in school and in their communities and providing access to services that address unmet needs such as mental health services and family support.

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Leadership and engagement by local officials can build opportunities to hold youth accountable and avoid the consequences of detention and confinement. NLC's Issue Brief, Alternatives to Arrest for Young People, describes the steps municipal leaders can take to open the door for policies and evidence-based protocols that their police departments will use to determine which youth should be arrested and/or detained and which youth can develop more successfully with locally controlled, community-based interventions.

NLC has also collected a variety of Police Training Programs as a resource for cities engaged in reform. The training program areas include improving responses to youth with mental health needs, improving youth-police relations, adolescent youth development, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Local Reforms to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Even after decades of reform and investment to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, problems remain. Local leaders can institute evidence-based practices that reduce disparities.

Continuum of Community-Based Alternatives

When treated as more serious criminals, young people who come to the attention of law enforcement for low-level offenses are less likely to regain their footing. Fair and effective responses to young people in the juvenile justice system reduce future crime and improve outcomes for young residents, therefore benefitting the city as a whole.

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Cities of varying sizes are contributing in important ways to juvenile justice reform. Policies for police-youth contact and arrests fall squarely in the purview of city officials, and cities are also well positioned to support the networks of community-based agencies most capable of holding youth accountable while supporting their development. Progress must include breaking down collaboration barriers among agencies and service providers that touch young people. Through strong partnerships cities can implement a continuum of high-quality community-based services for their youth.

NLC's municipal action guide, Increasing Public Safety and Improving Outcomes for Youth through Juvenile Justice Reform, introduces city leaders to opportunities for city-led juvenile justice reform. The MAG identifies key questions leaders and other stakeholders might ask to identify first steps to reforms, including:

• What data do city and juvenile justice agencies collect about youth and families with whom they come into contact?
• What do these data reveal about the outcomes for the city's youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system?
• What services are currently available to youth and families, and how effective are these services?
• What partnerships already exist among youth-serving agencies?

The guide also highlights several local examples, including innovative programs and policies in Gainesville, Fla., Minneapolis and Baltimore.

Using the municipal action guide as a foundation, the YEF Institute launched a 14-month technical assistance initiative with six cities for juvenile justice reform projects. NLC selected these cities to join the initiative:
• Gresham, Ore.
• Las Vegas, Nev.
• Little Rock, Ark.
• Minneapolis, Minn.
• New Orleans, La.
• Philadelphia, Pa.

The technical assistance included a Mayor's Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform, development of action plans, and opportunities for the selected cities to come together to learn from each other and share best practices. National experts also worked with cities to ensure reforms were based on the evidence of what works from successful initiatives in other localities.