City Leaders Build on Momentum of Juvenile Justice Reform Efforts

April 14, 2014

By Laura Furr

City leaders and juvenile justice reformers alike have met NLC’s new Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project with enthusiasm and interest. The principles of reformers and city leaders are aligned toward improved public safety.  Both want to create juvenile justice systems that are evidence-based, fair and more effectively hold youth accountable and help them become successful, productive adults.

The mounting evidence of what works to accomplish this mission is reaching an ever broadening audience through NLC, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative. Armed with a growing amount of research-based evidence, city leaders across the country are working with community, county and state partners to create a new model of juvenile justice reform. For example, by building collaborative infrastructure that intentionally includes schools and other youth-serving agencies, as outlined in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families’ City Platform for Children and Families, cities like Nashville, Tenn. have been able to impact truant youth in the community.

As outlined below, upcoming work from this project will highlight some concrete areas of overlap between the principles of Models for 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.

Stay Engaged with Peers and Experts through NLC
Just as juvenile justice reform in cities picks up momentum, so too is the Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project at NLC. Future articles will highlight concrete ways cities can contribute to reforms. For more information and to get engaged in the project, contact Laura Furr, Senior Associate on Juvenile Justice Reform, at furr@nlc.org or (202)626-3072.

For information on all of these juvenile justice reform topics and more, visit the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Resource Hub, supported by the Models for Change initiative.