Home News Center 10 Years of Juvenile Justice Reform: Why Youth Re-entry Matters

10 Years of Juvenile Justice Reform: Why Youth Re-entry Matters

March 25, 2015
Sarah Bryer

National Juvenile Justice Network - 10th anniversary logo

[Part 1 in a series of posts celebrating NJJN's 10th anniversary and our nine principles of youth justice reform. See "Why Youth Reentry Matters"; "First,  Do No Harm"; "Got Gault? From Processing Youth to Due Process," Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and OpportunityBlocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison, and The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It. --Ed.]

This year is the 10th anniversary of the founding of the National Juvenile Justice Network, and we’re celebrating. As a network of state-based advocates committed to creating a fairer youth justice system that is also developmentally appropriate, we have a lot to celebrate – the past decade has seen a lot of progress in youth justice reform. 

But there’s a long way to go, too. That’s why our 50 organizational members in 39 states endorse nine principles of youth justice reform based on a set first articulated by the Youth Transition Funders Group. These nine principles keep our work focused and inspire us to keep pushing for change. Each month between now and December, we plan to spotlight one of these reform principles. We’ll talk about why it matters, what sort of progress has been made, and the role advocates have played in translating the principle into policy and practice that moves us toward a fairer juvenile justice system and safer neighborhoods.  

This month’s principle: re-entry and aftercare. Why? Because we lock up far too many kids in this country, even though two recent studies – Pathways to Desistance and one by the Council of State Governments – have shown that even youth who have committed serious violent offenses can be managed safely and effectively in the community.  But in most jurisdictions, we aren’t doing the best we can to help young people reintegrate safely and successfully into their communities.

According to a recent poll by Pew Charitable Trusts, American voters think juvenile corrections should be rehabilitating youth in custody. But that’s not what’s happening. The Council of State Governments says it’s not uncommon for as many as 75 percent of youth returning home from confinement to be rearrested within three years. Two-thirds of these youth don’t return to school after their release from secure custody. And according to Justice for Families, even though parents and families are the most important factor in determining youth success in reintegrating into the community, only one in three families report being included in any release plans made for their children by juvenile facilities.

juvenile-justice-reform_youth-re-entry_JJIEThis is why re-entry and aftercare matter – both for young people in trouble with the law, and for keeping our neighborhoods safe.  That’s also why NJJN, with support from Models for Change, has created a resource section on youth re-entry on the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub, hosted by our partners at JJIE.org.

Among other things, the Resource Hub talks about the key issues of re-entry, reform trends, primary resources. What works in re-entry? It’s not rocket science – it’s things you’d expect, such as high-quality education and mental health and substance abuse treatment while in lockup. It’s also about taking the extra steps needed to ensure youth leaving secure custody actually reconnect with school, continue treatment, or get re-enrolled in health care coverage once they’re back in the community.  Coordination across agencies and jurisdictions – and good planning and assessment that begins when the youth enters the system – are key. 

Admittedly, “coordination and planning” don’t sound like a thrilling new frontier in reform. But often, reform isn’t about new ideas: it’s about implementing common-sense strategies. This is one of many places where advocates can play a key role. Since our member advocates are usually independent of existing systems -- but plugged into the community -- they’re in a great position to educate policymakers and legislators about what works to ensure youth leave the justice system with the supports they need to succeed, thereby keeping communities safe. Many times, though, advocates don’t get the spotlight.

Here’s an example: In October 2009, the Michigan Department of Human Services (MDHS) launched the Michigan Youth Reentry Initiative, initially serving youth in the three state-operated juvenile justice facilities. Beginning the first day in a facility, youth and families partner with a team to develop an individualized plan to successfully return to the community. Assistance for youth can include things like housing; physical and mental health services, including substance abuse treatment; employment and education; and social supports and family engagement.

Not too shabby – but what role did advocates play in all this? They were the ghost in the machine, so to speak: our member, the Michigan Council on Crime & Delinquency, championed the need for superior re-entry planning and services, assisted the state in developing its youth reentry model, and provided training and technical assistance during its implementation. 

The results?  Over the past 4 years, youth involved in the initiative averaged an 85 percent success rate, as defined by achieving treatment goals and not returning to placement. Starting in 2015, the initiative has expanded to serve youth in private residential facilities as well. MDHS has also strengthened its partnerships with the Michigan Department of Community Health and Michigan Rehabilitation Services to improve reentry services for youth with behavioral health needs.

Now that’s something to celebrate. 


>> Don't miss "What is Re-entry and Aftercare for Youth?" by Benjamin Chambers. 
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This is the first in a series of posts celebrating the National Juvenile Justice Networks' 10th anniversary.  

 Photo in image at top: U.S. Army on Flickr.

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