Beyond Bars: Keeping Young People Safe At Home and Out of Youth Prisons

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Author(s): The National Collaboration for Youth (NCY)

Published: Dec. 14, 2016

Report Intro/Brief:
"We can all relate to a desire to feel a sense of belonging. Usually this conjures up ideas of being part of a community of people who share history, common interests, lineage, culture, homeland or neighborhood, among other things. Young people also thrive on community. But for young people in conflict with the law, our response is too often the opposite. By incarcerating young people, we do things we know are harmful: expose them to marginalization and social isolation that can be traumatizing, make them feel (and be) unsafe, and separate them from their families and communities.

This report advocates for transforming our approach to young people in conflict with the law by growing community capacity and resources. This means creating and supporting programs and services designed to meet the needs of young people in the contexts of their homes and families. To realize the vision of moving from a facility-based juvenile justice system to a community-based system focused on developing and improving community supports for justice-involved youth and their families, we define continuum of care this way:

A continuum of care is an array of meaningful non-residential community-based programs, supports, resources and services specifically designed to meet the individual needs of young people and their families in their homes. Continua of care cultivate the strengths of youth and families and provide them with what they might need at different stages of intensity in order to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system and confinement.

It could be argued that a community-based approach with a continuum of responses exists in many communities, but few are equipped to safely meet the complex and diverse needs of young people in the juvenile justice system and their families. The lack of full services in the community is often used as justification to incarcerate or place the young person in a youth prison or other out-of-home placement, even when it would be otherwise unnecessary. Many systems have reduced their use of out-of-home placements for young people but replaced them with surveillance-based alternatives that do little to meet a youth's needs or get to the root cause of why a young person ended up in the system in the first place. Communities need a diverse array of services to meet the equally diverse needs of each young person who needs help - some kids will need very little and others will need a lot.

This continuum of care should exist at all points in the system. Implementing a vast array of services and supports in the community can keep young people from being arrested, from being placed out of the home and can also hasten return from an out-of-home placement."