A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Pilot Project

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Author(s): The Pittsburgh Foundation

Published: Feb. 13, 2017

Report Intro/Brief:
“In the fall of 2015, the Foundation’s Program and Policy Department launched the Juvenile Justice Pilot project, designed to generate data from youth who have first-hand knowledge of and/or who are at risk of experiencing the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County. Youth participants were asked to reflect on a variety of topics, such as which factors and events in their lives brought them to where they are today; and how their own voice and opinion has influenced – or not – their experience. They were also asked to share ideas for changes in the juvenile justice system to better serve young people like them. Discussion groups were planned and conducted in partnership with youth-serving organizations that have established close relationships with youth vulnerable to, or with active involvement in, the juvenile justice system.

During the course of the eight-month pilot, five discussion groups were conducted with 53 youth, average age of 18, of which the vast majority had either current or previous experience with the juvenile justice system and had been previously suspended from school. The powerful and insightful reflections gathered reveal the importance of respectfully listening and learning from youth to understand the circumstances and factors affecting the quality of their lives. Our findings highlight the value of listening to youth and documenting the negative impact of not including their voices in critical decisions affecting their lives; their yearning for positive relationships with caring adults; the devastating impact of criminalizing their behavior.

Recommendations target themes that emerged from the shared experiences of youth:

  • Engage youth as advocates against system involvement by integrating their voice and vision as agents of change in their own lives, among their peers and in their communities;
  • Increase system-wide awareness of race, gender and class as influences which impact their experience;
  • Champion adult advocates for youth who rise above their positions to create a nurturing and supportive environment for system-involved youth;
  • Connect youth to historical examples of triumph against odds and the implications of mass incarceration in the United States;
  • Remove excessive burden of restitution and court-related fees, which serve to inhibit the rehabilitation and re-integration of many youth.”

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