For Juvenile Justice, Let the Past Inform the Future

It has become more apparent to me that the future of juvenile justice reform may rest in some of the lessons learned in the past, combined with substantial evolving research that has positively influenced the field over the past 25 years.

Recent economic, demographic and political trends portend significant changes in the roles of federal investments and leadership, as well as state public financing of juvenile justice systems. Meanwhile, the future of the American economy is one that will challenge anyone who has fallen behind.

The economics of our country are dramatically shifting the middle class, downsizing it and rearranging capacities to generate tax revenues through various approaches. Young workers enter the workforce with sizable debt, adding stress to many low-income families.

Meanwhile, conservative political and fiscal management on all levels has rendered nil any hope for a growth in juvenile justice research and programming. Any hope for that lies in public-private partnerships, where the major innovation investments in juvenile justice have come over the past decade.

There could be no worse time to halt advancement of the juvenile justice field. Our communities are more culturally, ethnically and racially diverse than ever. This diversity creates both strengths and challenges. Finding common ground to help develop resilient, pro-social and educated youth while dealing with issues like retribution, accountability and public safety is complicated.

Given the devolution of juvenile justice as seen in many states (through the reductions in federal and state appropriations over the past 12 years), creating systematic approaches toward positive youth development and youth accountability naturally falls into the hands of more local decision makers and investors/stakeholders

So what do I mean by the future resting in the past? It seems overly simplistic, but thinking back to some of the historically safest communities in our country, when crime rates were lower and communities tended to hold broader agreement as to how to deal with risk-taking youth — there are nuggets that can be resurfaced and polished again.  Safe communities, research says, tend to have characteristics such as:

  • Strong and positive communications between parents, schools, social, recreational and criminal justice agencies whereby behaviors are consistently observed and reinforced or punished with shared values across organizations. This is the old “if it happened somewhere else, you have permission to correct my child and then let me know about it”
  • Clear values and a vision for what healthy, resilient, protected, just and equitable child rearing looks like across settings
  • Intolerance for behaviors that lead to crime: weapons, inappropriate substance use/abuse, bullying, etc.
  • Capability to respond immediately and effectively in “doses” commensurate with misbehavior when things go wrong – and not assigning the responsibility for solving problems to another organization or system
  • Extended support networks where the primary responsibilities for children remain within those networks and not delegated to other agencies or institutions
  • Stable and sufficient employment and workforce dynamics that allow for a primary focus on raising healthy families

So how do these observations frame juvenile justice reform for the future?

By sewing together lessons from the past with the scientifically generated prevention and evidence-based literatures, we can begin to see patterns that predict system improvements. We need to redesign our youth-serving systems around parents, primary caregivers, extended family members and natural supports in their local ecologies – in contrast with the systems that we have today, where our primary formal interventions are often housed in schools, courts, and law enforcement agencies.

We need to wrap developmental theory and brain development into community-based interventions and family supports in addition to the more traditional juvenile justice type settings (and fund them accordingly). We should help employers and employment systems develop flexible schedules and processes so that parents and extended family can be the primary interventionists for their children, including the creation of workforce programs and internships for youth that complement family and community goals. And we should invest in grassroots coalition and collaboration infrastructures instead of building more formal programming in the traditional agencies.

This isn’t to say that folks have what they need; indeed they do not and our schools, community agencies and state government systems continue to lose important budget resources. To turn this tide we must return to what works: Helping to nurture effective families and family supports, empowering local networks that agree on child-rearing values and philosophies in the main, and engaging communities that “own” their human resource outcomes by virtue of their willingness to get involved and stay involved over the long-term.

Federal leadership can play a significant role in these ideas by reframing research and policy investments toward family and community engagement, community-based accountability systems and evidence-based outcomes. Investing in new partnerships that leverage public, private and volunteer resources targeting local ecologies – and requiring very specific outcomes – would be very exciting.

Sure, the work is complicated and we know a lot about this already, both good and bad. But our kids are our kids, not the schools’ or the courts’ kids. We owe them all the innovation, flexibility, creativity and persistence that loving families and communities can generate.

Robin Jenkins is the former deputy director of the Division of Juvenile Justice within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and past chair of the North Carolina Juvenile Justice State Advisory Committee of the Governors Crime Commission

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