juvenile justice: engage

By Katie Thompson

[The following is an excerpt from the book.]

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There are over 60,000 youth, ages 18 and under, living in locked correctional facilities on any given day in America. For comparison, that’s the entirety of Ohio State University’s undergraduate student body, one of the largest in the country, plus about another 15,000.

It turns out that the color of your skin, your zip code, and whether you are poor or not also has a big impact on whether you get locked up or if you get to go home with a scolding. The majority of youth who are confined in state run, locked, youth correctional facilities have been convicted of committing a nonviolent offense.

“In the 70s there was a spirit of rehabilitation and many facilities were closed, but then the nation took a nose dive and got ‘tough on crime,’” Minette Bauer Deputy, CEO of the Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP), said.

This kind of reliance on incarceration reveals a deeply unjust practice. Studies have shown that unnecessary time spent in confinement significantly diminishes opportunities for success later in life. Sky high recidivism rates (the rate at which people re-offend) mean that within three years of release, 75 percent of youth are rearrested. Juveniles who have been incarcerated are less likely to graduate high school than youth charged with a similar crime but not incarcerated. According to the Casey foundation, one study found that correctional confinement at age 16 or under results in a 26 percent lower chance of graduating high school by age 19. 

It turns out that the color of your skin, where you grew up, and whether you are poor or not also has a big impact on whether you get locked up or if you get to go home with a scolding.

A vicious cycle of recidivism and lack of educational opportunity give a bleak outlook for juveniles with a record. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of clear alternatives that provide reason for hope.

“I think the tide is beginning to turn [towards rehabilitation] and there are now some exciting opportunities to speak about different services for kids,” Bauer said. “Everything that happens in a [correctional] institution happens better in a community.”

Instead of relying on pre-trial detention facilities or post-conviction state incarceration, alternative sentencing models promote non-custodial, community-based alternatives for youth who have been convicted of a crime. These can include things like community service, group homes, mentoring programs, and specialized mental health or substance abuse programs.

A vicious cycle of recidivism and lack of educational opportunity give a bleak outlook for juveniles with a record.

For over 40 years, YAP has used a nationally recognized, community-based alternative model that involves intensive one-on-one mentoring, a strategy for empowering the family, and relationship building with the youth’s school and community.

Most of the youth that YAP works with come from dangerous, poverty stricken neighborhoods, Bauer said. When a youth is referred to YAP by the court system, staff works with the youth’s family to develop a wraparound plan that will to get them involved in healthy activities and back to school.

The assigned advocate then works intensively with the youth on a weekly basis. The advocate, who YAP hires from the same neighborhood that the kid is from so “they’re culturally competent and understand the resources and challenges, especially in more dangerous neighborhoods,” spends 30 hours a week with the youth for an average of six months.

And the outcomes show that in nearly every category, youth who have been a part of YAP do better than peers placed in locked facilities. On average, 80 percent do not recidivate after they are discharged from the program, while 93 percent made progress or remained stable in school attendance post discharge. Additionally, one sample study showed that participation in YAP increased youth employment rates by 300%.

Bauer said a crucial component to this process is finding community “assets” that are available to the youth and their family once they are discharged from the program. 

“We try to bring in natural supports, we ask the family if there is a neighbor, coach, pastor, or relative who would be willing to help them out if they’d ask for help,” she said. “As we identify these people that the family already knows, it means that we’re leaving the family with resources.”

For Reverend Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, one of the most powerful resources in the community for supporting families and fostering relationships is the local church. Trulear is the National Director of Healing Communities, an organization that provides a framework for churches to engage with current or formerly incarcerated youth and adults. Healing Communities works to help churches identify families in their own congregations that have a family member in the system.

Both Bauer and Trulear emphasized that what makes alternative programs so successful is their intentional focus on building relationships - and that relationships, not confinement, are what can turn a life around.

“Citizens don't advocate for issues, they advocate for people,” he said. “I’m not going to get people to advocate for juvenile justice reform based on principles, I’m going to get them to advocate based on knowing someone affected by the system.”

Trulear believes that there needs to be more investment in programs like YAP, and said that this can begin at local congregations, which can become alternative sentencing sites themselves.

His own church community is an alternative sentencing site, and juveniles are often assigned by the courts to the church. Instead of traditional community service activities like cleaning, members of the church volunteer to go with the youth on nursing home visitations or to work in a soup kitchen.

Both Trulear and Bauer emphasize that what makes alternative programs so successful is their intentional focus on building relationships -- and that relationships, not confinement, are what can turn a life around. 

“What we need are people who are willing to invest time in these adolescents, to build relationships with them,” Trulear said. “There’s really no substitute for it.” 


Part One: Discover the Problem

Part One: Discover the Problem

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Two: See the Big Picture