People often look to the federal government as an agent of influence during transitions. While that’s a natural response in uncertain and uneasy times, change rarely originates from the top—more often than not, it is generated from those fighting for justice on the ground. This holds true with criminal justice reform, for both system-involved adults and youth.
Most people involved in the criminal justice system are held in state prisons and local jails, and grassroots efforts and state-based campaigns are best positioned to drive change. Especially in times of transition and uncertainty, it is (and largely has been) up to states and localities to drive reform.
What does on-the-ground reform look like?
Reform can be tied to statewide legislation, but it doesn’t have to be.
Some states, like Georgia, South Dakota, and Kansas, have passed legislation to reduce reliance on youth incarceration. In October, the DC Council unanimously voted in favor of the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act, aimed at recognizing the science around adolescent brain development to create a system more centered on young people’s needs.
These reforms, aided heavily by grassroots organizing, have the potential to significantly reduce the number of kids affected by incarceration.
But reform can also be as simple as changing the ways criminal justice actors (police, probation officers, judges) interact with young people on a daily basis. Programs and tools exist for police officers, probation officers, and judges to improve how they engage with system-involved youth.
Research shows that if these actors treat young people with respect, recognizing that they are not adults and making conscious efforts to combat the criminalization of youth, everyday practice can help spark systemwide change.
Shifting how we talk about, view, and treat youth
What do those working in juvenile justice need to improve their everyday practices with young people? To find out, Urban Institute researchers interviewed a range of juvenile justice stakeholders as part of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention–funded Bridge Project.
The answer: most stakeholders wanted to know how to shift their interactions with youth away from overly punitive models and toward frameworks that recognize youth’s unique developmental needs.
Most stakeholders interviewed were familiar with the science showing that mistakes are normal in adolescence and that kids should be treated as kids, not criminals, to improve both their life outcomes and community safety.
This may sound intuitive to some, but these people work within a juvenile justice system that evolved to treat kids as dangerous predators and prioritized punishment over rehabilitation. The stakeholders we spoke to wanted to shift toward a more effective youth-centered model, but did not know how to do so.
Over the next year, we’ll use findings from these interviews and from further engagement with juvenile justice stakeholders to create research-informed tools and developmentally appropriate approaches for practitioners to incorporate into their everyday work. These practices can help move the system away from criminalization and toward meeting kids’ needs.
In an environment where language has been used to stigmatize different communities, the criminal justice system needs to adopt models that reaffirm the humanity and developmental needs of youth, while making their communities safer. Change at the local level can take multiple forms, but the influence of everyday actions on youth touched by the criminal justice system cannot be overlooked as an integral aspect of reform.