Transforming youth justice requires change from within systems, taking steps to align culture, information, and processes with the long term vision.
Undertaking large-scale system transformation depends on many different factors, including knowing where your jurisdiction currently sits relative to a desired vision; the detail and design of policy changes that move toward that vision; and the beliefs and behaviors of the people who will implement these policies. Collecting, understanding and using the right data can both provide a picture of where the jurisdiction sits with regard to the desired vision and provide a path towards that vision through a data-driven culture and keeping track of relevant metrics.
And lastly, real change depends on recognizing the significant role that organizational culture can play in advancing whether and how vision statements get translated and implemented in policies and practices that positively impact young people and their families on a daily basis. For this reason, taking steps to ensure that agency values and beliefs are internalized at all levels—from the agency director to frontline staff, and among community partners—is integral to achieving the ultimate goals of any transformation. Understanding the context of your system and making these changes from within the system first will be beneficial not only to the young people currently involved in the justice system but to a more seamless transformation process more broadly.
Organizational culture generally refers to the collective set of values, beliefs and behaviors that operate within an institution or agency. The culture of youth justice systems in particular have been shaped by their origins, reflecting the country’s history of racism and paternalism (see more in the chapter on Centering Racial Justice and Equity) and how the values and practices associated with these origins have been reinforced over time. Many other factors impact organizational culture, including current policies and practices, institutional structures, leadership, tenure and experience of staff, channels of formal and informal communication, partnerships, training and metrics. Staff who work with young people every day are a valuable resource and are necessary collaborators to bring new visions to reality in practice. Youth, families and communities are essential partners to defining and realizing a new vision for youth justice that will be youth-centered, family-focused and increasingly community-led. As leaders approach the task of shifting organizational culture to align with new values and goals, it is important to be humble, ask questions and be willing and eager to learn from partners inside and outside of the current system.
As part of this new culture, and in order to both understand the current context of youth justice and see a path to the new vision, data analysis is a powerful tool for transformation. Used thoughtfully, the right data can cast light on current system practice, illuminate the mandate for change, and direct leaders where to focus. Data analysis is essential for measuring progress, keeping leaders accountable to the goals and values of transformation and determining the impact of changes made. Making sense of data and turning it into useful information for action begins with having a clear vision of the results the system should achieve and the many drivers that affect those results. Leaders working to transform a system are more likely to attract support and sustain momentum among partners if they can show how the new direction improves system and individual results. In addition, clarifying how changes in each part of the system are expected to contribute to better results is essential to choosing the data to be tracked and to using data to correct course when necessary and ensure continuous improvement.
Indicators that progress has been made in shifting the culture of a youth justice agency to one that is aligned with transformation.
Indicators that further attention to culture change is needed, which can point the way to areas for attention and reform.
Indicators that a jurisdiction has made significant progress in developing its data systems to serve transformation.
Indicators that a jurisdiction has more work to do in setting up data systems that will serve transformation.
These steps provide specific guidance for how to change systems from within, and taking steps to align culture, information, and processes. All of these steps are central in youth justice system reform, and can be implemented concurrently.
Engage staff in discussions with leadership about shared goals and values for the youth justice system, and examine existing policies and practices in terms of shared goals and values.
Providing consistent and clear communication around the vision and goals of transformation can build trust between leadership and staff and a healthy organizational culture that propels goals forward.
Invest in staff training and development that emphasizes youth well-being, racial equity and community-based support, and continue training and coaching over the course of transformation.
The data analysis team should include at least a senior manager who can develop the information agenda; a skilled data analyst who can perform statistical studies and analyze data sets, and knows how to present findings in accessible ways; a proficient technical expert with experience in extracting data in various formats from the management information system; and someone with the skills to create engaging visual representations of the data.
Working with the data analysis team, use the goals of transformation to analyze the data you will need to understand the current system, what is working to support youth well-being, what changes need to be made, and progress made with these changes and their success in better serving the goals of youth justice.
Learn about how to develop an ongoing staff review team with membership from staff at every level of the agency to facilitate organizational culture change.
Learn about how to how to structure and utilize
system assessments to advance system transformation.
Learn about the different types of analyses that can be useful tools in examining current practice, understanding changes and trends in practice. .
Take a look at some tips and notable examples of places working to change systems from within harnessing data to drive youth justice transformation.
Skilled, experienced facilitators can organize and run conversations between staff and leadership engaged in youth justice transformation, hold space for dialogue around potential conflicts and help the group arrive at a list of shared values and goals that resonate with staff and leadership and can be used to guide transformation and the culture change process. Useful questions a facilitator might ask to begin and guide conversations include:
Reviewing a list of shared values and goals common to youth justice system transformation can be helpful to assess how much alignment exists between staff and leadership. Lists of shared values from other jurisdictions that have engaged successfully in system transformation efforts can be helpful to draw upon as an example for both staff and leadership. Examples of values can also be found in our chapter on Developing a Shared Vision for Transformation. Below are some potential shared values and goals to work through in conversations.
Youth justice leaders may want to work with facilitators to consider what strategies and forums might be best suited to launch and continue dialogues with staff throughout the agency.Conversations might begin amongst the executive team and supervisors, ensuring that leadership is prepared to both implement and model behavior with their teams in a way that contributes to a healthy, asset-based culture, discussed further below. Leaders might then organize a series of conversations with staff in a variety of forums, ranging from town halls where all staff are convened and are able to ask questions openly, to working group meetings where staff collaborate with smaller numbers of peers representing various positions, to opportunities for more informal conversations such as office hours for staff to share questions or concerns with leadership in a more confidential arena.
Pierce County, Washington has been highlighted numerous times in this Guide, and in other resources about transforming juvenile probation and youth justice work. They have pioneered anOpportunity-Based Probation model with a positive youth justice framework, and not only changed their practice, but started from a place of centering racial justice and equity, collaborating with youth and their families and communities and working with staff at all levels to change the organizational culture.Leadership in Pierce County has noted that staff buy-in is crucial to the success of young people and of the program.
Pierce County has been thoughtful and deliberate about its collaboration with community partners from the very inception of its transformative programming. This process included staff on the front lines being involved in conversations with youth and family about what types of services they wanted and needed, and then finding community-based programs already in existence which met those needs, were aligned with theCounty’s vision and were willing to work with young people.
Culture is well reflected in routine interactions and language used between staff and youth. For example, currently in many jurisdictions it is not uncommon to hear staff refer to young people as “offenders.” This language may be so ingrained in agency culture that there is little to no reflection about how these terms shape perspectives of or interactions with young people.
A core part of the culture change process will be to retrain staff in using person-first language that humanizes young people who are involved with the youth justice system, as well as their families and communities, builds a strengths-based perspective of youth and repositions staff as agents of support and change for young people. Using simple, human terms such as “young people with strengths and challenges,” for example, immediately provides a more human and complex image than distancing and dehumanizing terms such as “delinquents” or “offenders,” and leads staff to consider ways in which they can support young people and invest in their strengths.Of course, language changes alone do not create change; they go hand in hand with all other practical aspects of transformation described in this chapter and in this Guide. Specific training such as anti-racism training may be useful in addition to open, honest and collaborative conversations between staff, leadership, young people, families and representatives of impacted communities to develop language that is supportive of a new paradigm and youth experience of justice.
Typically, systems collect quantitative data—data that can be measured and reported in raw numbers. Less often, systems collect qualitative data—narrative reports of system experiences and functioning. Both types of data are essential to understanding how the system operates and its impact on youth, families and communities. While each youth justice system is different, quantitative information is usually more readily available. Nevertheless, both sources of data will likely require further development as part of a longer-term data development agenda.
Leaders should ask the data analysis team to review the following key performance measures relevant to the system’s dynamics and case flow. Where relevant, the data should include the number and percent for each category and trends over time.
Many systems will need to invest in developing capacity to collect, analyze and interpret data bearing on the results of the system’s interventions. While transformation efforts should not be delayed while capacity is built, leaders should ensure that tracking and reporting on system results is a high priority for the data development agenda.
As they build out the data development agenda, leaders should establish regular, systematic processes for gathering information and feedback from young people who experience the system, their families and members of their communities, as well as youth justice staff, leaders and partners from other youth-serving agencies.These efforts should include formal surveys and group forums as well as interviews and other individualized conversations. This qualitative information is essential to gaining a much clearer picture of the young people the system is serving, their experiences in the system, current system failures and opportunities for transformation that will improve success.
A combination of quantitative and qualitative data can provide system leaders and partners with critical information about gaps in existing services when assessed alongside the needs of young people in the system and their families. This gap analysis is especially important when trying to understand system failures, such as a significant uptick in secure custody or other out-of-home placement, or an increase in the number of youth failing to complete probation or other programs, and how to respond with system changes as part of the transformation process.
This panel discussed why data is so crucial to efforts to transform youth justice systems and the way we think about justice for young people, how data has been used in past transformation efforts, and some key ways that other leaders can use data (and how to do it).
This discussion covered both the why and the how of having the most impacted youth and families leading transformation.
National Youth Partnership Strategist,
Youth First Initiative
New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition
New Jersey Parents Caucus
Pierce County Juvenile Court
Kathy Wright, Executive Director of New Jersey Parents Caucus, talks about the need to learn about the impact of the system directly from young people who experienced it and to trust them to lead if we are to create change.
Xiuhtecutli (Xiuy) Soto of the New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition speaks about how transforming youth justice begins with having patience with, providing support for, and relating to young people like him.
TJ Bohl, Administrator at Pierce County Juvenile Court, on some of the cultural obstacles inside the system to collaborating with communities, and the need for system leaders to overcome defensiveness to building a path forward together.
Explore some useful resources for changing organizational cultures and turning data into action.