The Case for More Community-Based Services in Juvenile Justice

Here are two stunning revelations about juvenile justice programs that have been made in recent years.

2009: The major Pathways to Desistance study research suggests that where a juvenile was placed for rehabilitation – community, residential or secure settings – was not predictive of whether he or she continued to offend.

2012: At a juvenile justice briefing, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Robert Listenbee conceded that his agency lacked much institutional knowledge on what worked in terms of programs

Put together, those facts paint a picture. Locking juveniles up is not a great producer of desistance from crime, and basic community surveillance and residential care doesn’t protect much against re-offending either. In the meantime, the central federal depot on juvenile justice doesn’t know much about the middle ground: meaningfully serving serious juvenile offenders in the community.

It is this chasm that Youth Advocate Programs hopes to fill with its report, “Safely Home,” and whatever online and public campaign it might follow the report with. YAP, founded in 1975 by juvenile justice reformer Tom Jeffers, has spent decades proliferating its own brand of community alternatives to incarceration, the hallmarks of which are paid community workers who focus on identifying and building on the strengths of young offenders.

“Safely Home”, written by YAP National Policy Director Shaena Fazal, makes an impassioned, anecdotal pitch for greater investment in community-based alternatives. It follows a simple, logical plane of reason:

Incarceration costs a lot

The report devotes almost no space to the argument that locking youths up is ineffective, simply stating that “a small library of excellent reports focuses on the litany of reasons why it is bad to incarcerate youth.”

It does smartly hit the reader up top with a political addendum to this: it costs taxpayers more than community-based programs. Using data from the trade association for correctional facilities, YAP puts the comparative price at $241 per day for lockup and $75 per day for community, though surely both vary widely by location.

Community-based alternatives have worked, when done right

The report makes mention of “bright spots” in the field of community alternatives, programs that have had particularly notable success in the field. Among those highlighted: Black Family Development in Michigan, Roca, Inc. in Massachusetts; Community Connections for Youth in New York City; and YAP sites in Alabama, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

Common elements of successful programs

The report suggests 12 “essential ingredients” of effective community-based programs, although it also concedes that some of the programs highlighted do not embrace all of them. The list:

  • Accept any youth referred to the program
  • Be accessible and flexible
  • Empower youth voices
  • Individualize services for youth
  • Ensure family-focused services
  • Approach youth with their strengths in mind
  • Be culturally competent
  • Engage youth in work opportunities
  • Prioritize safety and crisis planning
  • Do not eject youths from the program
  • Create opportunities for civic engagement
  • Build long-term connections to communities

YAP concludes with a set of recommendations for federal, state and local governments aimed at bolstering the nation’s network of community-based programs for juveniles. Among the recommendations:

For Congress: Funding an incentive program for states interested in investing in community programs and requiring OJJDP to provide technical assistance on community-based alternatives.

For state and local governments: Halt the building of new juvenile facilities, and use money earmarked for construct to fund community programs instead.

Click here to read the report.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint.

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