A new report from a coalition of juvenile justice organizations is intended to help communities better serve people 18 to 24 who are involved in the juvenile justice system and in danger of becoming homeless.
“This report focuses more on jurisdictions raising their age” of criminal responsibility, said report author Lisa Pilnik, co-founder and director of Child & Family Policy Associates and senior advisor of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “Transition and reentry planning are different if you’re talking about a 15-year-old [exiting the juvenile justice system and] going to return to their family verses a 19-year-old who isn’t.”
Recent trends show there is more of a need to address the older youth and young adults who remain in the juvenile justice system. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, 36 states and the District of Columbia have passed 70 laws to reduce the number of youth prosecuted, tried and incarcerated in the adult system since 2005.
With more jurisdictions increasing their ages for services from 18 to 21 and beyond, Pilnik said it was important that the homeless and juvenile justice systems acknowledge some of the unique challenges that young people in this age group are facing.
“We want systems to talk to each other and young people and change policies,” she said.
One important recommendation in the report is ensuring that older youth in residential placement are focused on transitional planning, and that they have multiple housing backup plans, Pilnik said. This is especially important for youth older than 18 because often they are no longer living with their parents, she said.
Holistic policies needed
Diane Sierpina, director of justice initiatives for the Tow Foundation, which helped fund the report, echoed Pilnik, saying this report is needed to help advocates and stakeholders address the unique needs of older youth.
This is an opportunity for the juvenile justice system and homeless advocates to talk to each other to create holistic policies that take into account both the risk of homelessness for the juvenile justice population and the risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system for those youth experiencing homelessness, she said.
“We see young people trying to find a place to stay when it’s really hot or cold outside,” said Naomi Smoot, executive director for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “We want juvenile justice to think creatively about those situations instead of locking them up for loitering or trespassing.”
The report highlights best practices in jurisdictions where those youth seeking to live independently have ample resources. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, the jail-based reentry program provides collaborative case management in partnership with 40-plus direct service providers.
Systems are already trying to do more diversion and use fewer residential placements to avoid the increased risk of homelessness that comes with juvenile justice involvement, Pilnik said. She hopes that advocates and policymakers will examine what they are currently doing and the report recommendations, plus talk to young people, and make appropriate changes.
The report was released by “Collaborating for Change,” a project of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and its partners the National Network for Youth and National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education and Families.
The Tow Foundation is a funder of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, which publishes Youth Today.
This story has been updated.