The rationale for a separate justice system for youth is the fundamental belief that young people are developmentally different from adults. The juvenile justice system was designed to rehabilitate, rather than punish, youth who exhibited certain behaviors deemed “delinquent.” Despite this stated goal, over the last several decades, children have been subjected to many of the same harsh, overly punitive policies imposed in the adult criminal justice system.
Research has since demonstrated that system involvement often causes damage and trauma in young people’s lives and that poor and minority youth have been disproportionately impacted. In recognition of these findings, the tide has shifted away from “tough on crime” approaches and toward those that are more developmentally appropriate. To further this movement, we support reforms to prevent or minimize system involvement; address “delinquent behaviors” through policies that are beneficial to youth; and ensure young people are prepared for success when they leave the system.
- Minimize young people’s contact with the justice system
We invest in approaches that aim to identify and eliminate pathways that lead youth to justice system involvement. For example, arresting young people for non-delinquent “status offenses,” such as missing school or running away from home, too often serves as a pathway to deeper involvement in the system. In addition, rather than criminalizing minor infractions, young people should be diverted from arrest and detention and provided with any necessary support services. We also invest in approaches within related youth-serving systems—such as education, homeless services, human services, and behavioral health—that aim to stem the pipeline into the justice system.
- Mitigate the effects of juvenile justice system involvement
Spending time in juvenile placement facilities is rarely rehabilitative for young people. We believe that, whenever appropriate, the juvenile justice system should employ community-based models rather than sending youth to secure detention facilities that are often far from their support networks. However, as long as young people continue to be confined in facilities, we support efforts to reduce their length-of-stay, improve the conditions of their confinement, and increase the quality and breadth of services available to them. In addition, we support ending the practice of transferring young people to adult criminal court.
- Advance developmentally appropriate alternatives to detention
Most young people involved in the juvenile justice system are not in juvenile detention. Rather, they are on some form of probation—whether as their primary sentence or following their release from placement. Troublingly, only about half of youth successfully complete probation, and those who fail to comply with its requirements are often incarcerated. We support developmentally appropriate juvenile probation, diversion, reasonable civil citations, and other alternatives to detention that focus more on prevention, treatment, and intervention than on sanctions, custody, and control.
- Ensure young people are prepared for success when they leave the system
We invest in efforts that ensure system-involved young people are able to complete their education, find employment, and remain stably housed. Youth must be provided with the support required to: maintain ties with their communities and families while they are in placement, transition seamlessly back into their schools and neighborhoods when they are released, and access any support services they need to become successful adults.