Following a New Roadmap to Juvenile Justice

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John LashThese days are exciting ones for youth justice in the United States. Several factors have come together to influence the evolution of the field, including the economic downturn, a recognition that traditional models have failed, and a wide variety of new alternatives.

David Muhammad, the former chief probation officer of Alameda County California, and the former deputy commissioner of probation in New York City, writes in an August 28, post for New America Media, A Roadmap to the Future of Juvenile Justice, about programs around the country that are working.

He focuses on several interrelated approaches. The first,Positive Youth Development, flips the usual approach of criminal justice, which views kids involved with the system as problems to be fixed, on its head. Instead, systems focus on youths’ strengths and work to develop them, while also addressing deficits.

At its heart are five promises; caring adults, safe places, a healthy start and healthy development, an effective education and opportunities to help others through service. These, along with various frameworks that join policy and practices, holistically approach juvenile delinquency for what it is, a social justice issue.

Muhammad next points out the development of trauma informed intervention, and the resulting decrease in detention. Most kids who end up in trouble have histories of trauma. Juvenile justice approaches have traditionally ignored this fact, and have even exacerbated the problem through the further trauma of incarceration.

“Numerous studies have shown that incarcerating young people has profound negative effects upon them,” he writes. “Several reports have also revealed that probation supervision makes lower-risk youth worse. Juvenile justice systems must take advantage of research that has developed risk assessment tools that are able to effectively separate high and low-risk youth.”

This focus on high-risk youth acknowledges two facts. First, the ability of probation officers to monitor youth is limited, and it makes sense to direct their efforts to where they can be most effective. Second, lower-risk youth are actually damaged by contact with probation and detention, so the use of these strategies is actually counter productive.

If youth are detained, it is imperative that they be housed in humane conditions. To do otherwise is to exacerbate the very problem we are seeking to resolve. If detention is necessary for safety, then youth prisons need to be places where kids can get the services they need for rehabilitation and treatment.

The final piece that draws all of the others together is community partnership. It is time for people to become involved, and to stop imagining that these kids are a problem who can be thrown away and forgotten. Government has been at fault in leaving the people out of the loop, but the people have been lazy and disinclined to become involved. Community-based programs will work to keep a lot of kids out of detention, and to welcome back those who are sent away.