This topic explains why shifting the roles, responsibilities, and resources of justice work, from systems to communities, is critical in youth justice transformation.
Leaders of youth justice systems can and should implement many reforms within their areas of responsibility and authority, especially those that will reduce the likelihood of harm to young people. And some leaders are already working hard to engage young people, their families and communities. For the most part, these efforts are directed toward the important goal of strengthening the youth justice system’s array of services and supports and providing community alternatives to youth prisons. True transformative change, however, requires new forms of partnership with community leaders and community-based service providers.
Very few youth justice leaders have worked intensively with communities to reimagine fundamental changes in the roles and responsibilities played by community leaders and other residents, neighborhood providers of services and supports, other community groups, including faith-based and business organizations, and young people and their families.
A reimagined youth justice system that values communities in promoting youth well-being and relies on them as central actors in delivering youth justice supports can help to strengthen communities in several ways. With community-based, credible organizations leading many youth justice functions, youth justice leaders can partner with young people, their families, community organizations and residents to design new solutions to reduce youth crime. They can also support the development and strengthening of community-based service providers, promoting a greater support network for youth as well as positive jobs in neighborhoods that often have the highest rates of unemployment and disconnection from the formal economy.
While institutional and centralized bureaucratic service systems end up exerting a kind of centrifugal force on communities—pulling families and neighborhoods apart—a strong web of community-based, family-focused, and youth-centered services and supports can re-knit the relationships and networks that keep families and neighborhoods together. This can provide a kind of triple return on investment: better outcomes for young people impacted by law enforcement and the criminal legal system; economic development for neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment; and reductions in crime in those neighborhoods.
Indicators that the system is taking steps in the direction of shifting roles and responsibilities for youth justice to communities.
Indicators that there is more work to be done toward transformation of the youth justice system to a more community-centered approach.
These steps provide specific guidance for transformation of a youth justice system toward a community-based and community-driven youth justice approach. All of these steps are critical to ensuring that community supports are central in youth justice system reform, and can be implemented concurrently.
Create proactive communication channels to inform communities about the services, supports, and performance of the youth justice system. Expand opportunities for community residents to offer input into the system.
Articulate a new vision for youth justice that values communities and people with lived experience of the systems as partners in its transformation. Sincere words must be followed by authentic action.
A skilled facilitator can work together with system and community partners, looking at the existing system, what is working well, and where promising alternatives to formal system intervention are possible.
Explore deep dives into the process of transforming from system-based justice to community-based support for youth, and examples of places that are making progress on this piece of transformation.
Youth justice system engagement with young people, their families and communities has varied from none at all, to fairly superficial or token, to (in rare cases) deep and consequential. Whole youth justice systems, departments within systems and units within departments may be at any of the following points on a spectrum of developing community partnerships:
DISENGAGED AND DISMISSIVE
At one end of the spectrum, the youth justice system may view communities as lacking any meaningful contribution to its goals. In fact, it may view communities as drivers of youth crime. Rarely does it see the community as a resource for support or engage community to help design approaches that promote the successful trajectory of youth. In sum, in this stage communities are acted upon, not engaged with.
As a step up, community members may occasionally be invited by the system to offer their perspectives on policies or practices, or on changes being considered. The requests may be more or less formal and more or less systematic. System leaders will commonly refer to these ad hoc attempts as evidence that communities support their plans, despite providing few options for meaningful and substantive input. Here communities are sporadically engaged with a limited invitation to react to proposals, not treated as full partners in change.
ONGOING AND STRUCTURED
Community members may be asked to participate in more structured and systematic efforts, such as joining standing advisory groups or task forces. The groups they’re asked to join may be comprised of a range of stakeholders, with their role to “represent communities” in the same way that others in the group are asked to “represent prosecutors” or “represent probation officers”. Here, input is more systematic but still limited in depth and representation. The role of community members remains external to the system and advisory, rather than integrated and authoritative.
SUBSTANTIVE AND DEEP
Some jurisdictions have begun to shift some decision-making and other responsibilities to community groups. For example, community groups have been asked to take the lead in determining the types of services and supports to be provided to young people in their neighborhood. Community groups that are governed and run by people impacted by the criminal legal system have been awarded contracts to deliver services and supports to young people. Community groups have taken the lead in providing oversight and ensuring accountability for the quality and effectiveness of services and supports. This is the level at which true partnership begins, as roles and authority for delivering youth justice begin to be shared with communities. Some jurisdictions have begun to develop these types of shared authority structures with communities, which can serve as models for other youth justice leaders seeking to share greater responsibility with communities.
Advocates, community groups and other innovators are pushing for more fundamental change. Their vision includes dismantling much of the current youth justice system and replacing it with community-driven and -based interventions. In some proposals, the system’s roles would be limited to ensuring due process of law, supporting the development of community continuums of care, providing funding, and ensuring accountability for results. In this case, communities would hold much if not most of the responsibility for shaping and delivering youth justice services. As discussed in the Introduction, while not yet completely demonstrated by a specific jurisdiction, to our knowledge, this vision may serve as a North Star as jurisdictions continue to build partnerships with communities and experiment with models of shared authority that invest more roles, responsibilities and resources in communities.
Communities can play a wide variety of roles in the delivery and administration of youth justice services. What roles communities will play in a given jurisdiction will depend on a number of factors, including how far the system has progressed with transformation, the vision established for a new youth justice system in that jurisdiction, the plans developed by community and system partners, the roles desired by community members and system partners, and the resources available in communities to support youth justice. The list below reflects a potential menu and spectrum of community involvement dependent on these factors, which can provide examples and a foundation for discussion and re-envisioning of community roles in planning conversations between system and community partners.
System leaders create advisory groups of youth, parents and/or community members to provide regular guidance on the design and delivery of services and supports as well as the overall direction of reforms. Community members participate in reform bodies to provide input into transformation.
Community, youth and family organizations review data and other information relevant to identifying patterns and practices of justice system responses, potential alternatives, and evaluation of available interventions. Community, youth and family organizations take the lead in identifying new roles for community organizations in youth justice, and in evaluating community assets and needs. The system begins to create a continuum of care that includes community organizations among youth justice service providers.
Community representatives help evaluate the relevance and efficacy of service delivery by both system and community agencies. Community boards review service proposals and help select new community providers of youth justice services. Participatory budgeting processes engage young people, their families, and other community residents in shaping financial resources to better fit the needs and preferences of the community. Community organizations manage a continuum of care that replaces most formal youth justice system-operated programs and institutions outside the community.
The examples below are systems partnering with community leaders and providers to create geographically organized continuums of care to provide services in the communities where young people and families live. Several jurisdictions have accomplished profound change through these types of partnerships.
Over the course of a decade Wayne County (Detroit), MI reduced the average daily population of incarcerated youth in state youth prisons from more than 700 young people to just 2 young people. The County’s Department of Children and Family Services launched a contract-based system consisting of a Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), five Care Management Organizations (CMOs), a local private 80-bed treatment center, and Youth Assistance Programs(YAPs) to successfully reduce the number of young people entering the formal system of care. The new model made a commitment to treating each individual as a person in need of opportunities and resources, rather than a societal disease that needed to be contained.
Washington, DC was on the verge of federal receivership, with a youth correctional system where nearly all committed youth were placed out of home and the local detention center was chronically overcrowded and dangerous. The notorious Oak Hill Detention Center, in which then-head of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) Vincent Schiraldi said “I would not want to kennel my dog,” was rampant with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse perpetuated by correctional staff. DYRS, under the leadership of Schiraldi, shifted its motivating values, creating an organizational process infused with the principles of Positive Youth Development and Positive Youth Justice, or “the belief that youth can change.” After years of advocacy, DYRS was finally able to close Oak Hill in 2010 and replaced it with a two-fold approach: (1) residential placement at the smaller and more proximate New Beginnings Youth Development Center, which housed 60 beds for male youth with the most serious forms of justice contact; and (2) diversion to YouthLink21, a rehabilitation program that places youth with system involvement in households in the community, for most everyone else. Through YouthLink, youth were granted a case coordinator and management team, who connected them with services like job training, mentorship, health education, and parenting support. In doing so, the city successfully concluded a decades-long consent decree and accomplished historic lows in detention, incarceration and out-of-home placements.
In Virginia, different parts of the state had significantly different rates of incarceration and other out-of-home placements, resulting in an inequitable system of “justice by geography.” The state moved to leveraging an extensive network of providers under its two Regional Service Coordinators, making it more possible for both urban and rural youth to receive services in their communities. As a result, the state saw sharp reductions in both detention and long-term incarceration.
This discussion covers why strong community-based supports serve as foundation for helping young people thrive in their communities.
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 shifting roles, responsibilities, and resources to communities.