A Role for Philanthropy in Juvenile Justice Reform

Michigan’s juvenile justice system made national headlines last summer after it incarcerated a 15-year-old for failing to complete her schoolwork. When the student struggled to keep up with remote learning, falling behind on assignments as many of her peers have during the pandemic, a judge determined that she had violated her probation. Less than a month later, at a separate Michigan facility for young people in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick was killed by staff members during a 12-minute restraint, allegedly for throwing a sandwich.

Although they are extreme, these stories illustrate two fundamental problems with many state juvenile systems. Supervision and incarceration are regularly used for youth who have committed low-level offenses and don’t need such intensive interventions. And in general, involvement in the system produces poor outcomes and, on too many occasions, tragedy for young people and their communities.

To address these problems, The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with states to apply data and research in support of sweeping juvenile justice policy changes. Since 2012, we’ve provided technical assistance to 11 states seeking to safely reduce their juvenile correctional populations and invest in community-based alternatives that effectively combine accountability with rehabilitation.

Take Kansas, for example. In 2015, the state was spending up to $89,000 per youth 18 and under for each year of incarceration. Two-thirds of the young people in the state’s taxpayer-funded group homes were in the facilities for misdemeanors. Further, Black youth were 6.2 times as likely to be incarcerated as white youth. Meanwhile, evidence-based services for young people who continue to live with their families were scarce. Judges had few local options short of juvenile hall.

In response, the state in 2016 adopted a plan to reserve incarceration for youth with the most chronic, violent behaviors, shutter unneeded facilities and shift the savings into community-based options that promised a better public safety return on investment and better outcomes for young people and their families. Two years later, data showed that the group home population had dropped 63% while juvenile arrests had fallen by 29%. The state also closed a correctional facility and used $30 million in savings to fund drug treatment, family counseling and other options for young people remaining in their homes. Less crime, lower levels of correctional control and juveniles living at home: It’s the win-win-win that the public and their policymakers wanted.

Although youth incarceration has fallen nationwide over the past decade—in many cases as a direct result of declining juvenile crime—many states have yet to adopt policies that limit the removal of young people from their homes for placement in taxpayer-funded residential facilities, or that reallocate public dollars to effective public safety strategies. Having a juvenile record carries lifetime consequences, including restrictions on college admission, military service and certain occupational licenses, as well as other barriers to employment.

Most troublingly, many young people are removed from their homes for relatively low-level offenses. For example, in our initial work with state leaders and stakeholders in Utah, we found that most youth in state custody were there for misdemeanors, infractions such as contempt and age-related offenses including curfew and alcohol violations. In South Dakota, nine of the top 10 offenses that sent young people to residential facilities were misdemeanors, including petty theft and marijuana possession.

Nationwide, a disproportionate share of youth who are removed from their homes are involved in the child welfare system and struggling at school, indicating that they are at high risk of poor long-term outcomes and that states need coordinated intervention strategies to promote success.

Charitable giving can boost efforts to keep kids with their families, strengthen supports at school and in the home and safely reduce the size and cost of government-run facilities. However, of the dozens of charitable and nonprofit organizations from across the ideological spectrum that have invested time and energy in reforming the adult sentencing and corrections system, only a few have shifted their work to intervene earlier with at-risk youth. With many points of intervention, philanthropists can pick investments that fit their goals and funding strategies. Areas in need of support include:

  • Direct-service programs that provide viable alternatives to incarceration.
  • Data analysis and research to define problems and evaluate proposed solutions.
  • Consultation for government agencies and other policymakers to find consensus on paths to reform.
  • Advocacy that puts reform of the juvenile system on the radar of government, business and nonprofit decision-makers.

Government spending on high-cost juvenile incarceration hasn’t been effective, and the research is clear: States can achieve lower levels of crime and punishment if they invest in strategies to reduce recidivism and support families. Charitable giving can catalyze this work—and accelerate trends toward safety and liberty for America’s youth.

To learn more about juvenile justice reform, check out a Roundtable webinar on the topic on June 10, 2021. Register to attend the online event here.Jake Horowitz is the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

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