Urban Wire How Jurisdictions Can Keep Youth Out of the Deep End of Local Juvenile Justice Systems
Leah Sakala, Janine M. Zweig
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Teenagers hang out beside a mural

So far, COVID-19 has infected more than 2,500 incarcerated youth. This number spotlights a severe public health impact of incarceration on young people, but evidence has long shown (PDF) that placing youth in juvenile justice facilities has harmful consequences for them, their families, and their communities. These consequences are particularly extreme for youth of color.

COVID-19 has increased the urgency of youth decarceration. New findings from our multiyear developmental evaluation of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work to prevent out-of-home placements, or youth involvement in the “deep end” of the local jurisdiction’s juvenile justice systems, can help inform communities’ decarceration efforts both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting youth in out-of-home placements causes harm, especially to youth of color

The juvenile justice system reflects and compounds systemic racism and other inequities (PDF). Overpolicing communities of color and racial profiling help drive inequities in the application of criminal legal levers and higher incarceration rates among certain youth.  As a result, youth of color— particularly Black, Latinx, and Native American youth—are far more vulnerable to being incarcerated (PDF) than their white counterparts.

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that placing youth in juvenile justice facilities can cause lasting harm (PDF) to young people and families (PDF). Youth incarceration causes significant disruption to young people’s lives, including to their education and family relationships (PDF). Youth who are in juvenile facilities are also vulnerable to sexual victimization while in custody, particularly if they are LGBTQ+ or have a disability or mental health condition. Youth incarceration can also have lasting negative effects on young people’s mental and physical health, hinder their ability to complete their education, and increase their likelihood of future involvement with the criminal legal system.

Deep-end reform can help break the cycle

To address these challenges, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched their local deep-end work to collaborate with local jurisdictions around the country to significantly reduce out-of-home placement, particularly for youth of color. The foundation offers participating sites resources, tools, technical assistance and other types of support to help advance policy and practice reforms to their juvenile justice systems. Our evaluation of 12 sites, in partnership with Mathematica, documented progress and lessons learned. We found that sites engaged in a wide range of activities as part of their deep-end reform work, but several elements were particularly helpful for advancing progress across sites:

  • Collaboration, especially with youth and families. This work included collaboration on individual case planning and designing and advancing broader system reform.
  • Buy-in from staff and community. Communicating the mission of deep-end work and providing regular updates about progress helped to cultivate commitment to the collaboration.
  • Increasing data capacity, particularly for understanding race inequities. Collecting new metrics to identify the nature of communities’ racial and ethnic inequities, developing new ways to share reports, and using data to measure progress were all part of sites’ reform activities.
  • Strong leadership from people in positions of power. Having agency and department leadership committed to the goals of deep-end reform proved helped deep-end sites cultivate buy-in from staff at different levels.
  • Probation was a critical element of reform, both in terms of how it was structured and the partnerships it involved. Changes to probation policies, such as diverting youth with misdemeanor charges from probation, streamlining probation conditions, and standardizing decision making, can help limit ineffective probation practices that fuel probation revocations and drive out-of-home placements. Partnerships with community organizations can improve service provision for youth on probation.

What should other sites undertaking youth decarceration consider?

The sites that partnered with the foundation brought a diverse range of contexts and prior experience with reform to their deep-end work and tailored their priorities accordingly. Some of the lessons they shared include:

  • Racial and ethnic equity and inclusion does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. Sites focused on incorporating equity into multiple aspects of their work, including raising awareness and increasing buy-in, improving data use, and adopting targeted policies and programs.
  • Building relationships with families can take time, and collaborating on system reforms requires addressing potential barriers to participation, such as language access and transportation.
  • Even with assistance, reform is challenging. Being clear on mission and goals is important. Positive culture change, written policies, and funding strategies can all sustain reform efforts.

Local jurisdictions have the power to advance decarceration reforms. To address the deleterious effects of disproportionate out-of-home placement of Black, Latinx, and Native American youth, our evaluation of the deep-end sites suggests jurisdictions should center racial and ethnic equity and inclusion in this their efforts. Strong evidence shows the harmful effects incarceration can have on young people for the rest of their lives. Communities wanting to reduce this harm should make decarceration a central goal. The added threat of COVID-19 in youth facilities should make this goal an even greater priority.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags COVID-19 Youth development
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center