The Business of Positive Youth Justice: Measuring Success

Last week, our Positive Youth Justice series explored the use of positive youth development (PYD) in re-entry work at Waterside Workshops. The small nonprofit by the San Francisco Bay uses boatbuilding and a bike shop as the starting point of a personal relationship between the staff and youth. 

Re-entry into the community is of course the last logical step on the continuum of juvenile justice. This week, we move away from practice for a discussion about process. How does one establish a PYD mentality where a different approach existed? 

Following is the second in a two-part analysis by Marc Schindler, who helped establish a PYD approach at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.

Intro Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four / Part Five / Part Six / Part Seven

A few years into efforts to reform DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), we were making progress towards adopting a positive youth development (PYD) approach. We closed horrible facilities, revolutionized education in one facility, moved many more youth into community-based settings, and trained everyone in the agency on the principles of PYD.

While we were guided by our best ideas of how to infuse general PYD approaches, we didn’t really have a set of standards to measure our progress or help other jurisdictions adopt a similar approach.

To help solidify our thinking and set some guides to move the reforms forward, we asked Dr. Jeffrey Butts, now of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for assistance. He produced a framework for “Positive Youth Justice,” which includes a set of principles to help operationalize positive youth development, take into account the unique needs of justice-involved youth, and identifies specific domains of service to help youth succeed and help measure progress.

The most common test of a juvenile justice program asks: How many kids were arrested and/or convicted again? The PYJ framework imagines the role of the justice system differently from the mission of most justice systems.

Preventing future contact with the system is obviously a very important goal. But most parents don’t just ask that their kids avoid being arrested or pass a drug test—we hope that our kids will positively engage with pro-social activities, meaningful relationships and develop skills to guide them through life.

A positive youth justice system measures its success not just by helping kids avoid future delinquency, but by fostering connections (attaching/belonging) and providing them with experiences (learning/doing) to support their development as they transition, hopefully successfully, into adults.

In order to develop some initial ways to chart progress, we worked with Dr. Butts, the Vera Institute of Justice and our community partners in DC to develop metrics in the core areas of work, education, relationships, community, health and creativity.

Changes have continued at DYRS since I left, and while there is still more to do, the results are encouraging.

Re-arrests of DYRS youth, a conventional measure, have decreased 40 percent between 2011 and 2013. And because DYRS wants to show that it’s putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to PYJ, it also tracks positive measures. Since fiscal year 2011, 116 youth have earned a GED or high school diploma, 141 have had a job, and youth have earned 268 professional certificates.

Tallying these kinds of positive outcomes isn’t just about measuring the progress of the agency. It’s also about keeping the agency focused on the success of youth as the first priority. Focusing on positive outcomes reminds everyone that success doesn’t look the same for every young person—not every youth is eligible for a diploma or able to work, for example.

Changing the culture of bureaucracies is no small task, especially when the average tenure of a juvenile justice director is just over two years.  But there is a blueprint for the application of PYJ. And with leadership, training (and more training), and a system of accountability that focuses on youth success, it is within the reach of all juvenile justice systems.

Marc Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. Between 2005-2010, he served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

This series was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation, which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.

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