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Will Your Juvenile Justice Reform Strategy Last?

September 14, 2011
NJJN Newsletter

Seems like everyone has noticed that the current climate is a good one for incarceration reform. The ACLU released a report this week, "Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities," that underscored the need for states to enact cost-effective and evidence-based policies to save money and reduce incarceration generally.

And we noted in our recent report, "Bringing Youth Home: A National Movement to Increase Public Safety, Rehabilitate Youth and Save Money," that many states across the country have dramatically reduced the number of youth held in secure facilities. 

Those changes have been driven by disparate factors – reform-minded policymakers, legislation, lawsuits, and tight budgets. Because of that, the reductions in numbers of youth locked up unnecessarily may not last. As advocates, we should be asking ourselves: what sort of reform strategies do last? 

Fortunately, Jeffrey A. Butts and his colleague, Douglas Evans, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Research and Evaluation Center, are way ahead of us. In their new report, Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment: Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice, Butts and Evans examine the juvenile justice reforms undertaken in the past forty years to reduce youth incarceration. They classify them into three basic types:

 1.      resolution (direct managerial influence over system behavior);

2.      reinvestment (financial incentives to change system behavior); and

3.      realignment (organizational and structural modifications to alter system behavior).

Why does this matter? Because, as they point out, the number of young people incarcerated at any given time period isn't correlated with youth crime rates. As they say, "The scale of incarceration is not simply a reaction to crime. It is a policy choice."

So, while all three strategies have been used effectively to reform juvenile justice systems, they conclude that realignment is probably the mostly likely to be sustained over time, and cannot be "easily reversed by future policymakers facing different budgetary conditions and changing political environments."

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