2013-04-12 08:20:00

Youth Justice at the Crossroads--A New Vision of Opportunity Before Incarceration

OAKLAND, Calif.--We are at a pivotal moment for the future of juvenile justice in this country. Youth crime is at historic lows throughout the nation and juvenile incarceration rates are also down. Many states have begun implementing or are considering significant juvenile-justice reform initiatives that can further reduce juvenile incarceration and improve the level of support and services for youth in their neighborhoods.

Nowhere is this more critical than in California. Over the past 15 years, California has experienced an astronomical 92 percent reduction in incarceration of the state's juvenile facilities.

At the same time, juvenile crime rates have also plummeted. According to Department of Justice statistics, in the past 10 years there has been a 32 percent decline in juvenile crime in California.

Improved State Budget Creates Challenge

But youth justice in California is at a crossroads now that the state is shifting more responsibility for administering juvenile justice to counties. The state is also considering closing down its juvenile system.

In a series of interviews I conducted recently with juvenile-justice experts, I asked, “What are the greatest challenges facing youth in the state today?” One foremost leader in the field gave a surprising response: "The state's improving budget situation."

One would think that an improved state-government budget would be a good development. But this leader explained that by having more money, the state may just return to massive incarceration--because it may not need to cut corrections budgets further. Unfortunately he is right.

There has been a long-standing lack of creativity and a reliance on ineffective practices when it comes to juvenile justice. Thankfully, though, there is a huge opportunity to fundamentally transform the system, invest in communities, further reduce youth crime rates--all without expending any additional resources.

I’m among those who envision a new way (some may argue, a very old way) of administering juvenile justice. Traditionally, village councils or tribal commissions were responsible for overseeing justice. Not strangers in sterile downtown buildings handing out punishments that make the lives of youth and their families worse, not better.

Imagine a system that has established Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Boards in each city. These locally controlled and operated boards include neighborhood residents--youth and families, clergy, professionals—who represent the entire community.

Then resource these boards with the same amount of funds that the government currently spends on that community.

Smarter Use of Same Millions

Say there is such a board every 20-30 square blocks. What about public costs in the most impoverished areas? Say, conservatively, there are high-concentration neighborhoods with 50 youth in the system. Multiplying that number by the average current amount of $150,000 spent on each youth per year in the juvenile justice system comes to a $7.5 million bill for that neighborhood annually.

That $7.5 million a year per low-income neighborhood is money already being spent, but with what results? If we lived by the correct and effective principle that incarceration should only be used for young people who truly pose a legitimate risk to the public safety, then the vast majority of those millions could be used to develop the neighborhood, to provide vital services and supports to young people and their family.

With that approach we could create a system of justice that builds and supports community, not destabilizes it, as happens now.

There is much discussion and interest in “restorative justice” in many juvenile-justice circles. But instead of just having a restorative justice program, cities could actually implement a system that restores youth, victims, family and community.

The Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board would be responsible for working with youth who have engaged in delinquency, having them engage with any victim of their acts and providing needed services and supports to the youth and their family. The board would determine and mandate that the young person perform some community service in their own neighborhood and engage in a restorative process with any victim.

We are a long way away from such a system. But with vision, leadership and courage -- and without any new money – American society can build a system that develops community, supports youth and family and reduces crime.

David Muhammad is the CEO of Solutions, Inc., which provides consultation to government agencies and philanthropic foundations. He was formally the Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and before that served as Deputy Commission of Probation for New York City.

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