Increasing Public Safety and Improving Outcomes for Youth through Juvenile Justice Reform

The Challenge

City leaders can increase public safety and improve outcomes for young residents by changing how their cities respond to young people implicated in delinquent acts or accused of crimes. When city policies end up channeling large numbers of youth into a juvenile justice system that emphasizes arrests and detention, these policies inadvertently jeopardize rather than enhance public safety and security, particularly in high-crime neighborhoods. At the same time, when young people who come to the attention of law enforcement for low-level offenses (e.g., school truancy, drug use or petty theft) are treated as more serious criminals, these decisions reduce the likelihood that these youth can regain their footing and greatly diminish their future prospects.  

Two decades ago, the national stance on juvenile crime took a decided turn toward strategies centered on arrest, prosecution and confinement of youth. The results of this approach have been deeply troubling. Although a small percentage of youthful offenders do pose significant risks to public safety, such strategies are not appropriate for the great majority of the 1.5 million youth arrested annually, most of whom commit relatively minor offenses.

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For most youth, even brief involvement with the formal juvenile justice system causes negative short- and longer-term consequences, typically doing more harm than good. For this reason, a growing number of states and localities are seeking new and more effective ways of holding youth accountable for their actions while protecting public safety and avoiding greater harm to young people. City leaders have a unique opportunity to be part of this shift, increasing public safety and improving long-term outcomes for young residents by identifying ways in which municipal government can contribute to juvenile justice reform.

The push for more effective approaches to juvenile justice is both driven and guided by the latest research on brain development and function during adolescence and young adulthood. Recent advances in neuroscience have confirmed what we commonly understand: adolescents and young adults are less able to weigh long-term consequences against immediate gratification, experience the greatest gap between sensation-seeking and impulse control and are more susceptible to peer influence than at any other point in life. This phase of brain development, which research suggests can last until age 26, underscores the need to steer toward approaches to reform and punishment quite different than those employed for adults. Unfortunately, public policies at local, state and federal levels still trail these findings.

Many city leaders may assume that municipal governments have no role to play in juvenile justice reform. However, cities of varying sizes – many of them highlighted in this document – 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 build and support the networks of community-based agencies most capable of holding youth accountable while supporting their development. Finally, just as municipalities support the flow of “returning citizens” from adult prisons, cities can also plan, coordinate and provide services for young people returning home from juvenile confinement facilities.

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Nationwide Policy Context

During the last decade, the nation has made significant progress in reforming its juvenile justice systems. These reforms seek to keep the public safe while holding youth accountable for their actions in the least harmful and restrictive setting possible. Key signs of progress include:

  • A growing number of county and state agencies are setting goals to move or keep youth who do not pose a public safety risk out of secure settings and are supervising more youth in city neighborhoods.
  • The federal government and some states now forbid incarceration for status offenses, such as truancy and running away from their parents or guardians.
  • Fewer schools are relying upon the juvenile or criminal justice system to punish students who are disruptive in school.
  • Scientific research demonstrating the effectiveness of evidence-based services is now available to support and guide state and local innovations.

Image removed. One of the most important steps that city leaders can take is to bring a halt to the practice of responding to status offenses with arrests and court proceedings. Nationwide, 137,000 cases of status offenses ended up in juvenile court during 2010, representing a large-scale missed opportunity to address early warning signs of trouble in a more constructive and effective manner.

Disparate treatment by race and ethnicity represents another current focus of policy reforms across the criminal justice system, including juvenile justice. African American and Hispanic youth receive harsher treatment than their white peers charged with the same offense at every point in the juvenile justice system, including arrest. Researchers point to subjective decision-making as one cause of the disparities.   

The federal government takes a limited role in juvenile justice, via policy initiatives and a small amount of funding. The Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act sets certain standards for state juvenile justice systems and mandates that each state establish a State Advisory Group (SAG) to develop policy and distribute federal juvenile justice funds to local agencies. A recent addition to the federal funding landscape, the Second Chance Act, joins the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant as additional financial resources for states and localities.  

State agencies and courts constitute the main focal point for the limited federal presence; in most states, they possess the lion’s share of control over the juvenile justice system, with counties in the lead in other states. Currently state SAGs direct federal funds primarily to law enforcement and prosecution efforts. Pennsylvania provides one example in which the SAG has utilized federal funds strategically to promote significant juvenile justice reforms. Other states, including California, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Illinois, have passed sweeping overhauls of their juvenile justice systems to remove youth from state-run facilities and increase community-based treatment. Within this evolving landscape, many cities are now exploring and expanding their involvement in juvenile justice reform efforts.