Introduction: Transforming Youth Justice
Decades of research on youth development confirm what we all know – YOUTH ARE DIFFERENT FROM ADULTS. Advances in neurobiology show that the human brain is not fully developed until one’s mid-twenties and that outcomes are better if youth are treated based on their age, maturity, and family circumstances.[i] Yet, each year, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable young people, primarily youth of color, are funneled into the justice system, which is neither designed nor equipped to meet their needs or bolster their development. Overwhelmingly, evidence proves that reliance on punishment and incarceration, rather than restorative justice and rehabilitation, is harmful to young people[ii] and is associated with increased rates of reoffending,[iii] strained family relationships,[iv] lower educational and vocational attainment,[v] and incarceration later in life.[vi]
We know that adolescents and young adults, by their nature, engage in risky behavior, some of which may be unlawful. We also know that most youth age out of or desist from criminal behavior without any intervention at all.[vii] For those who do become justice-involved, it is important to examine whether the policies, systems and programs intended to help them truly are preparing them for successful futures rather than causing them further physical, emotional and collateral harm.
The time for reform is NOW!
A sea change is underway in the youth justice field. Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that, given developmental differences, a youth’s age, maturity and circumstances should be primary considerations in sentencing. Whether for moral or fiscal reasons, more and more states have reexamined their justice policies and are committed to policy changes that have significantly reduced the number of youth held in detention and locked institutions – some by more than half.[viii] Public attitudes are shifting in favor of rehabilitative measures over punishment, and a broad range of policymakers are taking up the charge for reform. At the same time, the rates of violent crime by youth have declined to the lowest levels in over 30 years.[ix] Not only are youth spared the trauma engendered by court involvement and removal from their homes, but states and counties are saving hundreds of millions of dollars by shifting resources away from costly incarceration and toward more effective community-based, trauma-informed programs and family supports.[x]
While these trends are encouraging, there are still far too many young people who are exposed to violence and trauma — in communities and in the system — which, if left untreated, can increase the likelihood of offending.[xi] The United States remains far more punitive and less youth development-oriented than other Western democracies in the way it treats young people in trouble with the law.[xii] Urgent action is needed to embrace strategies that are proven to work and eliminate justice policies and practices that threaten the safety, well-being and civil and human rights of children and youth.[xiii]
Achieving Our Vision
The Youth Justice Work Group (YJWG) of the Youth Transition Funders Group (YTFG) envisions a youth justice system that fosters the healthy development and well-being of all children and youth by building upon their strengths, cultivating their relationships with caring adults, supporting their families and communities, and offering them age-appropriate opportunities for future success. We are committed to partnering with the broader community to promote restorative justice, safety, opportunity and positive outcomes for all young people.[xiv] In order to achieve our vision, we recommend the 10 Tenets for Youth Justice Reform.
- National Conference of State Legislatures, Trends in Juvenile Justice State Legislation 2011-2015
- Campaign for Youth Justice, State Trends: Updates from the 2013-2014 Legislative Session
- MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice