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Rise for Youth: a Pathway Out of the Juvenile Justice Maze

October 9, 2015
Kate Duvall


[Part 7 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 Opportunity; Blocking 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.]

We all want safe neighborhoods. One practical way to make sure we can have them is to do everything we can to make sure that when we send youth into the juvenile justice system, we use interventions proven to work, instead of ones that have been shown to fail. And yet, current policies in most states work against this goal.

My state, Virginia, is no exception. Currently, its juvenile justice system is like an extremely difficult maze with too many pathways into the system, and too few paths that lead out. Many of our youth, no matter how they come into the juvenile justice system, get on a dead-end path that goes straight to prison and have no way out. Research shows that many youth incarcerated in the state pose no public safety risk: less than half of the youth admitted to the Department of Juvenile Justice custody in 2014 were admitted on person felonies; many were sent there because of misdemeanors or probation violations. Worse, Virginia’s latest three-year re-conviction rate for youth committed and released from a juvenile prison is a whopping 73.5%.

As a result, Virginia spends millions of dollars to incarcerate children who are not a threat to our communities — which makes many of them more likely to commit new offenses when they go home. And yet there is a more sensible way: provide them with rigorous, evidence-based programming in the community. 

Surprising as it may seem, this approach is the key to safe communities. An unprecedented study by the Council of State Governments of 1.3 million case records of youth in Texas’ juvenile justice system spanning eight years found that incarcerated youth were 21 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who received services closer to home. And when youth did reoffend, youth released from state-secure facilities were three times more likely to commit a felony than youth supervised in the community. In other words, we need to redesign our juvenile justice maze so that youth stop going to prison. Instead, we need to build more paths to the right community-based rehabilitative services to help youth get where they need to go.

To do this, Virginia needs to create a range of effective community-based programs. Many exist – it’s just a matter of making sure local jurisdictions have the funds to implement them correctly. That’s why my organization, JustChildren at the Legal Aid Justice Center, worked with a bipartisan coalition to launch the RISE for Youth campaign: to ensure that Virginia stops sending youth down the path to incarceration. The campaign unites policy experts and activists from both conservative and progressive backgrounds to re-invest in proven, community-based alternatives, and transition from Virginia’s juvenile prison system for youth incarceration to small, secure facilities for high-risk youth.

Our campaign aims to redesign the juvenile justice maze by:

  • Ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia by reducing the number of students referred to the juvenile justice system for minor misbehavior.
  • Supporting youth in their homes and communities by giving local governments funding to provide services to the youth in those settings rather than spending far greater sums of taxpayer dollars on state-run prisons that remove children from their homes and families.
  • Building a true continuum of evidence-informed placements for youth who cannot safely remain in their homes by creating secure facilities that are regionally based, focused on positive youth development, and no larger than 24 beds.

The principle at work here – creating a network of effective community-based programs instead of expensive, ineffective locked facilities – is one of nine principles of youth justice reform my organization endorsed when it became a member of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) — a national organization of 52 groups working in 39 states on behalf of youth in trouble with the law, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. This month, NJJN is spotlighting the principle of creating a range of community-based programs. If we’re truly serious about making our neighborhoods safe, we must stop sending our young people in trouble with the law down the path to prison – in Virginia, the RISE campaign will help us do that.

Want to help your state redesign the juvenile justice maze and send youth down a different path? Find an NJJN member organization near you or make a donation to NJJN to support this work nationwide. Help your community adopt sensible strategies to ensure that youth in trouble with the law grow into responsible adults and we all benefit from safer communities.  

juvenile-justice-reform_Kate-DuvallKate Duvall is an attorney with JustChildren, a program at Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Kate represents individual clients involved in the juvenile justice system. She uses these experiences to inform her policy work in the same arena. Kate is adjunct faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law, where she supervises students in the Child Advocacy Clinic. Prior to joining JustChildren, Kate was the Hunton and Williams Richmond Pro Bono Fellow for two years. In 2013, Kate was the recipient of the Carol S. Fox Making Kids Count Award for her work to better the lives of Virginia’s children. 

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