Shrinking systems requires system leaders partnering with key stakeholders and youth, families and their communities in order to reform policies and programs both internally and externally.
Shrinking youth justice systems will depend on reforming policies, programs and practices, reducing the number of young people in institutional incarceration and reforming the case decision making process. Policies and procedures that do not support the direction of transformation should be identified and reformed in order to create a policy framework that aligns with a mission supportive of transformation. This shift will create organizational policies and procedures that support a community-led, family-focused and youth-centered model. As a result, communities will be able to provide most of the services young people need with the support and funding of the system.
Another step in moving away from an institutional, carceral model to one that is strengths-based and community centered, is to dramatically reduce the number of young people in institutional settings. Many incarcerated young people are not a risk to public safety and are incarcerated on minor offenses. The young people are taken from their homes and communities, and kept in a system that lacks urgency to return them home. Rather than finding services that promote the healing and well-being of young people, systems rely on incarceration as the primary method of accountability despite evidence of the harm it causes. The goal is to reduce the number of young people in detention and out-of-home placements as a bridge to more fully replacing institutionalization with a community-based approach.
Finally, reforming the case decision making process within a system can help divert many young people from incarceration to community-based alternatives. Improving decision making to promote equitable decisions that support youth well-being will provide alternatives to incarceration, and opportunities for diversion. These opportunities for diversion depend on the policies of the jurisdiction, local leadership or politics, resources available to leaders and staff making diversion decisions, and finally, the personal leanings and biases of the individual making the decision. This will especially impact the disproportionate amount of Black and Brown youth that are moved deep within the system. These decisions that are often made by individuals define how the system operates and can distort even the most well-intentioned policies. Building understanding among leaders and partners about how case decisions are made, and involving youth and their communities who are directly affected by these decisions are some of the important steps systems must make to support diversion to community-based alternatives to incarceration.
Indicators that a jurisdiction has made significant progress in improving case decision making.
Indicators that a jurisdiction has significant work to do in improving decision making for youth.
Indicators that a jurisdiction has made significant progress in reforming youth justice structures, policies and practices.
Indicators that a jurisdiction still has significant work to do in reforming its youth justice structures, policies and practices.
These steps provide specific guidance for how to reform policies and programs, reduce reliance on incarceration, and improve case decision making. All of these steps are central in youth justice system reform, and can be implemented concurrently.
As system leaders discover policies and procedures that don’t support the direction of transformation, they should identify those that create major roadblocks as targets to make changes that align with a policy framework supportive of transformation.
Review budgeting, procurement and contracting systems to ensure the system is able to support youth-centered and family-focused services in the community.
Create multiple opportunities to divert youth from entering the justice system pipeline. This will allow more youth to be served in their communities and fewer to be deeper in the system which will decrease the overall demand and need for incarceration.
Create a multi-agency workgroup to identify and review youth involved in multiple systems who are currently incarcerated in order to either find alternatives to incarceration or prevent the transfer from social services to the justice system.
Center youth, families, and communities to develop an ideal continuum of services and supports for youth in communities with high levels of youth involved with the juvenile justice system.
Leaders must increase understanding among system leaders and partners of how decisions are made about young people across agencies and decision points in the system.
It is a key responsibility of leaders wanting to transform the system to create opportunities for young people and their families to be full partners in case decision making processes.
Through reviewing the current case decision making process, identify action step(s) that make a difference in reducing incarceration, increasing equity, and improving outcomes for youth, families, and communities in case decision making.
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 reform youth justice policies and practices.
One version of this type of in-depth case review is the Quality Service Review(QSR) methodology, developed for child welfare. For example, Utah uses a QSR to assess performance of the state’s youth justice system. The Utah review includes a case review instrument that covers a number of client status and system performance indicators.
Additional resources with more detailed descriptions and examples from jurisdictions that have implemented the QSR process are available in the resource list at the end of this chapter.
Substantial evidence tells us that the great majority of young people are very unlikely to be arrested a second time, and so changes in processing that create more exit ramps—without any conditions—can be one of the most effective diversion strategies. Examples of these include but are not limited to:
Police warn youth and/or inform parents of incident without formal arrest, and release youth to parent/guardian.
Pre-arrest diversion, such as Florida’s Civil Citation initiative, which files no formal charges with court for first-time misdemeanors. Youth maybe required to do community service hours to avoid charges being filed subsequently.
Prosecutorial diversion, such as the Wayne County, MI (Detroit) RightTRAC program, which partners with community-based providers to divert youth assessed to be at low risk of violence from the youth justice system, while addressing needs, holding youth accountable and repairing harm caused to family, victims and community.
Diversion to other systems, recognizing that young people who are homeless, have mental health needs, are abused or neglected, have traumatic stress disorder and/or have experienced human trafficking should be diverted away from youth justice to systems that are better designed to meet their specific needs.
Informal forums where young people play a role in responding to offenses committed by their peers as an alternative to formal adjudication.
Restorative justice programs, such as Restorative Response in Baltimore, MD, which provide diversion from the justice system, either before any delinquency allegations are processed, or post-adjudication, as an alternative to formal court-ordered services or sanctions. As experience with restorative justice has continued to grow, its potential as an approach to even quite serious offenses, including those that resulted in grievous harm, is increasingly recognized. Common Justice has become a model program for restorative justice, based in Brooklyn, New York.
One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it provided examples that urgent and focused attention to finding alternatives for incarcerated young people can safely and swiftly reduce institutional populations. In response to the health risks to youth and staff in holding youth in congregate care during a pandemic, many states reduced the number of young people in institutional placement considerably.
According to a longitudinal survey collected by the Annie E. CaseyFoundation on national detention data, the overall population fell by almost 30% in the first two months of the pandemic and remained at that reduced level for about a year.7 Unfortunately populations rebounded in 2022 to pre-pandemic levels, primarily because young people – particularly youth of color – stayed longer in detention; admissions remained lower than they had been prior to the onset of COVID-19. However, a more nuanced analysis showed very different patterns for jurisdictions across the country. About a third of sites sustained decreases in detention admissions and kept releases constant, resulting in a 37 percent decline between 2020 and 2022, while about a third returned to business as usual and detained 56 percent more young people in 2022 compared to 2020. The sites that are succeeding are leading the way and showing us that precipitous and impactful decreases in youth incarceration are possible to sustain long-term.
There is also evidence that youth prison populations were reduced following the onset of COVID-19. Though data on state commitment populations is limited and has not been updated beyond 2020, Youth First examined data in 31 states and found a 24 percent decline in post-adjudication incarceration in the first six months of the pandemic. Four states – Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi and North Dakota –cut their youth incarceration population by half or more over that period.
A recent report from the Urban Institute detailed efforts to sustain reduced reliance on incarceration in three states – Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey –during the COVID era, each of which saw early reductions of 39 percent, 47 percent and 60 percent, respectively. These states join others, including Washington, DC and New York, which have reduced incarcerated populations in response to a crisis and shown that reductions are possible.
Founded in 2015, Baltimore Children & Youth Fund (BCYF) provides public funds to support community programs for young people in Baltimore. They work to ensure youth are able to succeed in school and live in stable, supportive communities. A task force made up of community leaders, youth program service providers and City government representatives was created in 2017 to make recommendations for the fund’s operations. In order to prioritize racial equity, BCYF selected Associated Black Charities (ABC) to be the intermediary as they knew how to build the capacity of organizations serving BlackCommunities. Funds of $10.8 million were then allocated by ABC to be distributed in grants to organizations serving children, youth and supporting organizations. Additionally, they provided recommendations that stressed community empowerment and racial equity as guides for the fund. During the first grant cycle, $9.6 million in grants were given to 84 organizations around Baltimore, 66% of which were led by African Americans.
Explore some useful resources for reforming policies and programs both internally and externally.