Our recently completed poll of 1,000 American adults offers advocates of youth justice reform new optimism, but also a path forward in their efforts. Some of the key findings:
By a margin of 78 – 15 percent, the public overwhelming wants the focus of the juvenile justice system to be on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration and punishment.
A large majority of U.S. adults (69 percent) favors removing youth from adult jails and placing them in youth facilities.
People overwhelmingly trust judges (81 percent), not prosecutors (12 percent), to determine if and when a juvenile should be tried as an adult.
Nearly two-thirds of the public favors setting a minimum age at which a young person can be prosecuted in adult court.
With a groundswell of support for their position, advocates for youth justice should start by sharing the findings with federal and state policy makers, rebutting the misguided argument that Americans want to lock up our young people and throw away the keys.
Beyond dissemination, the poll results and other research we conducted also teach some important lessons about how to craft an effective message. We know that Americans support greater focus on rehabilitation and treatment for young people, but advocates of harsh and ineffective approaches will carry the day in a vacuum if we fail to vigorously offer a strong message:
A few of the key recommendations:
Couple the notion of accountability with a greater focus on rehabilitation. The American public wants to see young people take responsibility for their actions and believes that young people are capable of positive growth and better decision making with appropriate rehabilitation.
Talk not just about what’s best for the young person in the system, but what’s the best for society, for the safety of our communities. The vast majority of young people in the system will eventually be back in the community and the best way to reduce the chances of repeat offenses is to make sure they receive rehabilitation, education, and job training. This not only reflects the best policy research, it is also a compelling message to Americans.
Use strong adjectives to describe rehabilitation – rigorous rehabilitation, intensive treatment, required counseling. The adjectives can help ensure that people realize these programs are serious, not cushy.
Young people, not juveniles. Juvenile has become a pejorative, most often associated with delinquents. It’s time to remove this word from our lexicon and start calling them young people, which is what they are. And we should start calling their environment the youth justice system instead of the juvenile justice system.
Michael Bocian is Founding Partner at GBA Strategies, which conducted the survey on behalf of the Campaign for Youth Justice with funding from the Public Welfare Foundation.