Strategies

Strategies for City-Led Juvenile Justice Reform

Assess current roles, share information and set joint goals.

Ensure fairness in the earliest youth contacts with the juvenile justice system.
Expand and ensure equitable access to high-quality, community-based alternatives to arrest and prosecution. Other strategies on the horizon


Cities can increase public safety and improve outcomes for youth by implementing strategies that hold them accountable for their actions in more effective, equitable and developmentally appropriate ways. Youth need individualized responses at multiple points in their involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Early attempts to reform juvenile justice suggest that progress must include breaking down collaboration barriers among agencies and service providers that touch young people. Strong partnerships with county and state agencies can enable city leaders to foster community-based alternatives to arrest and prosecution, reduce racial and ethnic disparities at the point of arrest and reconnect youth leaving the system with supportive community resources.

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Strategy: Assess current roles, share information and set joint goals.

Strong partnerships with county and state juvenile justice agencies and other youth-serving agencies will prove crucial to achieving reform. Because county and state agencies often hold key administrative responsibilities, city leaders can identify and map existing structures, trends, reform efforts and collaborative bodies to identify where gaps exist and partnerships are most needed. In many places across the country, groups are already revising policing strategies, addressing racial and ethnic disparities or employing strategies to reduce reliance on detention. Building strong working relationships focused on common goals will cement the strategy, and partners will likely need to agree to additional data sharing so that they can understand baseline conditions and monitor progress against goals.

Action Step: Identify first steps to reforms based on existing activities.

A city, on its own or in partnership with a stakeholder collaborative, can map the current situation. Questions that city leaders or other stakeholders might ask include:

  • 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?

City leaders are also well positioned to collect qualitative feedback from juvenile justice-involved youth and families through listening sessions about the relationships among youth and families, police, community-based providers and juvenile justice system partners.

If trends suggest an opportunity for change, and a city learns that a juvenile justice stakeholder group does not already exist in the area, the mayor may convene a group to move toward reform goals. Examples of key stakeholders a city can engage in a juvenile justice reform collaborative include:

  • Law enforcement agencies, including any police or sheriff’s department with arresting authority in the city;
  • Youth-service agencies, including schools, social service agencies and recreation departments;
  • Community members, especially system-involved youth and their families, faith leaders and community-based service providers;
  • The juvenile court, including the chief judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys; and
  • Juvenile justice system agencies, especially juvenile probation chiefs.

Action Step: Create agreements to support local goals and facilitate information sharing.

Image removed.Successful collaboration and information-sharing agreements provide a crucial foundation for tracking the progress of reforms. A growing number of municipalities have executed multi-agency Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to establish a framework for sharing information. The strongest MOUs have clauses establishing timetables for their updating and renewal; the timetable should not call for revisions so frequently that re-negotiations of the agreement take priority over accomplishing the goals of the agreement. Establishing terms for an MOU, such as five years, will also support sustainability through leadership transitions.

Another opportunity when crafting information-sharing agreements is to promote a sustained focus on long-term youth outcomes and their use in assessing agency performance. Strong local collaborations often include a results framework to track population-level effects of reforms. At present, some 20 percent of state juvenile justice agencies collect data that show how youth fare beyond their system involvement. A city working on reform may find itself able to collect and use such data, in lieu of or as a local supplement to statewide data. These measures may include, for example, recidivism (including re-arrest), new convictions, violations of probation and new offenses as well as positive measures such as improved mental health, reduced substance abuse, better educational outcomes and increased readiness for work.

Strategy: Ensure fairness in the earliest youth contacts with the juvenile justice system.

Local law enforcement is usually the first point of contact between a city’s young people and the juvenile justice system. The policies, protocols and training in police departments have the power to create a marked shift in how police officers make decisions of who to arrest and the numbers and types of young people arrested. Significant research now documents the over-representation of young people of color in the juvenile justice system. This research makes clear that youth of color, especially African American youth, are arrested more often, prosecuted more harshly and sentenced more stringently than their white peers. What is less clear is why, and this lack of clarity contributes to the difficulty in developing comprehensive solutions that address this disparity. However, subjective decision-making is at least part of the answer.  Therefore, reforms with proven success are targeted at improving subjective decisions or building objective decision-making tools.

Action Step: Implement training to change the nature of law enforcement interactions with youth.

Cities can support developmentally appropriate interactions between youth and law enforcement by implementing new training protocols. A few pace-setter cities have already developed and tested new protocols. For example, Philadelphia has improved communication and relationships among local youth and new police officers through the Pennsylvania DMC Youth-Law Enforcement curriculum, a mandatory segment of training for all cadets at the policy academy. In addition, Crisis Intervention Training for Youth (CIT for Youth), along with a similar course focused on adults, teaches officers nationwide how to identify and respond to mental health crises at the root of many disruptive behaviors.   

Action Step: Utilize objective decision-making tools at arrest.

Local law enforcement agencies can improve public safety and reduce racial and ethnic disparities at arrest by using objective decision-making tools. The use of such a tool at the scene of arrests in Tucson, Ariz., decreased the number of physical arrests of youth by more than 95 percent – from approximately five per day to two per month – during a twelve-month period, and resulted in a department-wide culture shift. See more on Tucson’s experience in the Local Examples section of this guide.

Strategy: Expand and ensure equitable access to high-quality, community-based alternatives to arrest and prosecution.

City leaders seeking to increase public safety and improve outcomes for youth will likely see progress by fostering the development of a continuum of high-quality, community-based services for youth.  A strong continuum will involve a number of options spread across different neighborhoods that respond to specific youth behaviors and needs. For example, cities can stimulate or support the development of programs that provide mental health or substance use treatment, create youth development opportunities, build behavioral capacity within youth or use restorative justice to resolve issues.  Through procurement cycles, cities can regularly evaluate the quality and results of contracted services.

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Action step: Create mechanisms for referring youth to community-based alternatives.

While playing an important role in assembling a continuum of high-quality, community-based alternatives to arrest and prosecution, city leaders can also ensure the use of mechanisms to refer youth to the most appropriate alternative. Cities can draw upon two major referral system models: police-led alternatives to arrest and juvenile assessment and service centers. Most cities that have created these models focused their early implementation efforts on youth charged with status offenses and misdemeanors.

Police-led alternatives to arrest include station-house adjustments, as in Camden, N.J.; civil citations used in Gainesville and Miami, Fla.; and paper referrals in Tucson, Ariz. In each system, law enforcement officers have the option to issue a citation instead of arresting youth. Youth must soon follow up with a juvenile justice system partner, most often a probation agency, for further assessment, services and potential consequences.

For police-led alternatives, two approaches help ensure equitable treatment and developmental appropriateness. Law enforcement agencies that are seeking to reduce racial and ethnic disparities (e.g., the Gainesville Police Department) use validated objective risk assessment tools or supervisor approval mechanisms to avoid disparities in the decision to cite or arrest a youth. A key tenet of developmentally appropriate responses involves immediate consequences for wrongdoing. For this reason, cities exploring police-led alternatives often work to avoid delayed responses caused by the hand-off from police to probation.

Juvenile assessment and service centers (JASCs) in several cities have emerged as a second successful model of city-led diversion from arrest and prosecution. In these models, police, school officials or community members refer youth accused of wrongdoing to the JASC instead of juvenile court. At these centers, trained staff assess the youth, refer them to services in the community and provide follow-up support and supervision if needed. These centers can provide a demonstrable benefit for local police. The Multi-Agency Resource Center in Calcasieu Parish/St. Charles, La., reduces processing time for police officers to an average of twelve minutes. The Juvenile Supervision Center in Minneapolis receives funding and oversight from a city-county-schools partnership, with funding drawn from the city’s Community Development Block Grant allocation. It contracts with a local nonprofit agency for operations.

Action Step: Implement a continuum of high-quality community-based services.

A robust continuum should aim to meet the individual needs for support and accountability of youth involved in the juvenile justice system. City officials can provide funding directly or lead efforts to raise and coordinate private funding for a variety of programs, including:

  • Restorative justice programs, including teen courts, community panels, Civic Justice Corps crews or community conferencing, as in Baltimore;
  • Cognitive behavioral modification programs, such as anger management programs or cognitive behavioral therapy, as employed in the Becoming a Man program in Chicago;
  • Behavioral health services, including mental health treatment, counseling and substance abuse treatment;
  • Evidence-based interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy or family functional therapy;
  • Youth development programs, including mentoring, jobs programs, work readiness and skills training, recreation or sports programs and community service opportunities, as offered through Washington, D.C.’s YouthLink; and
  • Educational supports, such as dropout reengagement and alternative education centers or programs.

Image removed.Youth at the “low” end of the juvenile justice system, such as those charged with vandalism or loitering, may benefit from a very brief community service/restitution opportunity combined with youth development or education supports. Youth facing more significant charges and needs could benefit from evidence-based interventions or cognitive behavioral modification programs. In addition to services and supports keyed to the nature or apparent causes of the offense, young people can also benefit from integrated approaches that address key developmental tasks such as acquiring job skills and completing educational qualifications.

Contracts with community-based service providers should mandate and fund data collection and reporting on measurable outcomes. Using a results framework can guide reporting to ensure resources are directed toward successful programs. With an eye toward evaluation research, city leaders are well advised to avoid programs that have been proven ineffective or even harmful, including so-called “scared straight” programs.

Action Step: Open community-based services to youth re-entering the community.

Youth leaving supervision or confinement in the juvenile justice system often struggle to reconnect with positive pathways upon return to their home neighborhoods. Cities can ensure that programs within a continuum of community-based services open their doors to returning youth. Hartford, Conn., has demonstrated a way to target services to returning youth at no additional cost by reserving spots in the city’s jobs program for justice-involved youth.

Other strategies on the horizon

City leaders across the country are at the forefront of experiments in juvenile justice reform that have not yet produced evidence of success. Two promising strategies for city leaders to watch include:

  • Restructuring the program financing relationship between state and local governments.  New York City’s “Close to Home” initiative to shift the responsibility and funding for services for juvenile justice-involved youth from the state to the city represents one of the first examples of a city-focused “reinvestment” strategy. This initiative resulted from advocacy in the state capital to renegotiate the locus of control of funds to the local level.
  • Pay for Success financing arrangements. Such financing derives “first dollar” support from the private sector rather than government for investments in social and human service programs striving to reach well-defined goals. Boston and New York are early sites of Pay for Success experiments.

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