Five Ways Cities Can Lead on Juvenile Justice Reform

A new National League of Cities (NLC) report details how leadership in six cities furthered local juvenile justice reforms. The Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored the report documenting the role of cities and mayors as new, powerful contributors to the national momentum toward developmentally appropriate reductions in the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system.

The report documents developments during a recent technical assistance initiative of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute), sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Models for Change initiative.

“Many of these … are issues that should be diverted, and we are working on trying to make sure that our young people are not made a part of the criminal justice system when there are other alternatives and diversions available,” Little Rock, Arkansas Mayor Mark Stodola said during his 2016 State of the City address.

Diverse cities across the country can learn from the progress made by the cities of Little Rock, Arkansas; Gresham, Oregon; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; New Orleans; and Philadelphia. These cities contributed to key local and national juvenile justice reform goals, including:

  • Reducing the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system, and therefore the harm caused, at the earliest point of contact with police;
  • Producing more equitable decisions about which youth enter the system and which get diverted; and
  • Creating mechanisms to assess and refer youth to community-based services outside of the juvenile justice system.

The newly-released brief outlines five key policy shifts city leaders can make, including:

  • Make public statements prioritizing juvenile justice reforms within broader agendas.
  • Focus resources to achieve measurable goals, including directing staff to liaise with juvenile justice agencies or prioritizing citywide data tracking toward measuring juvenile justice-related efforts.
  • Convene local stakeholders, including representatives of other government agencies, community-based service providers and institutions of higher education in support of juvenile justice reforms.
  • Recognize that arrest serves as the front door to the often negative outcomes that follow justice system involvement. Enlist police leaders to revise youth arrest policies to prioritize diversion and reduce racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Support more and better aligned community-based alternatives to the juvenile justice system. For example, juvenile assessment and service centers provide police a better choice than “arrest or nothing” for youth in need of services, and bring together multiple services under one roof.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges highlighted early progress achieved through reforms in her 2016 State of the City address: “Another long-term way to deter violence is to keep people out of the criminal justice system to begin with. In the past 18 months, we have increased the number of juveniles involved in diversion, which has led to fewer youth entering the system.”

The paper also describes how cities hoping to join this national momentum toward developmentally appropriate and equitable juvenile justice should keep in mind two supporting process reforms. First, cities need more precise data, disaggregated in multiple ways, to identify decision points at which current policies block progress. For instance, Minneapolis identified and revised a single criterion in its diversion policy to achieve more equitable law enforcement decisions. Second, university partners can help evaluate needs and progress, as in the Las Vegas project.

These six cities demonstrate that city leaders can contribute meaningful reforms to juvenile justice, even as county and state agencies control most aspects of the system. The YEF Institute continues to work to increase the number of cities actively engaged in and leading local reforms to reduce crime by youth and help youth thrive. In addition to the technical assistance, NLC applied its learning to multiple written resources that provide ongoing support to diverse cities pursuing juvenile justice reforms.

Join NLC to learn more about these examples during a webinar on Thursday, September 14 at 1:00 p.m. EDT. Register to join the webinar here.

Laura_Furr_125x150About the author: Laura E. Furr is the program manager for justice reform and youth engagement in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr or reach her at