February 17, 2017 Practice Points

Can the Input of Youth Improve the Justice System?

By Jessalyn Schwartz

The Pittsburgh Foundation has completed an eight-month research effort to determine how to better serve youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Surveying 53 youths with formerly or currently active cases in the court system, the study found that the failure of adults to ask questions about why the youth acted out and to give the young person a say in their consequences, was one of the biggest problems leading to mass detention of young people. Some youths discussed their reasons for truancy, such as a lack of food, clean clothing, hot water, or other necessities. Others cited violence in the home or other extenuating circumstances as why they committed an offense.

"The Qualitative Study of Youth in the Juvenile Justice System," as the report is titled, aims to review and reduce inequities in the juvenile justice system and serve as a tool to obtain grant funds and strong community partnerships to assist youth in Pittsburgh. Data from 2015 shows that of the 3300 young people referred to juvenile probation, a little less than 1000 ended up in secure detention, with another 770 in home detention. ¾ of that population was being disciplined for nonviolent crimes, such as truancy, failure to pay fees, or drug-related offenses. The numbers also show that an overwhelming percentage of youth in detention are African-American, while Black youth make up only 20% of the community population.

The study recommends giving youth a greater voice in developing reforms, diversion programs, and policy related to juvenile justice, improving school discipline and reasons for court or probation referrals, paying more attention to at risk youth, such as females of color, and changing the way court fees and restitution amounts are set. Youth must be heard in the process of their punishment, as there is a finding that having a voice ensures better compliance. Overall, the study highlighted that access to a consistent, caring, and honest adult was the most meaningful factor in achieving positive outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Jessalyn Schwartz is an attorney in Boston focusing on child welfare and mental health law.

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