By Equal Voice Action
In the U.S., where the incarceration rate remains the highest in the world, juvenile justice systems across the country serve for many young people as the entry point into a system of mass incarceration, punishment, prejudice, and lost opportunity.
Two new reports detail the ways that the juvenile justice system often serves to hurt, rather than help, young people and their families, with communities of color continuing to disproportionately bear the burden of institutional failures in the delivery of true justice and rehabilitation.
Parents Fighting for Youth Justice is a powerful new report by the New Orleans-based social justice organization Ubuntu Village that gives voice to a constituency that is all too often left out of the practices and policies surrounding the criminal justice system: the families of the young people involved in that system.
Through surveys and focus groups, Ubuntu Village collected feedback on the experiences of families of young people who are navigating the Orleans Parish juvenile court system.
Engaging in this participatory research project, a host of parents, grandparents, and caregivers describes a system in which families are often shut out, stigmatized, and held back in their own lives by a court system rife with uncertainties, inefficiencies, and a focus on reactive punishment rather than proactive rehabilitation.
Families cited numerous challenges in trying to navigate the system, including:
- a pervasive lack of communication and information about court proceedings, necessary preparation, and recommendations;
- long and frequent delays regarding hearings and the overall judicial process, often resulting in missed work and even lost jobs among families; and
- a dehumanizing approach that sees their young family members as adult criminals to be punished, rather than kids who have potential and could truly benefit from proper support.
One parent from a focus group described the contradictory outcomes of a juvenile justice system that is meant to be rehabilitative, but instead regularly serves to disempower and further alienate: “Instead of making them feel like ‘I wanna do better,’ it’s making them want to do worse, because they’re feeling like nobody’s on their side.”
While the report details common challenges families face in the local criminal justice system, it also surfaces bright spots in the system – namely the unique attorney, judge, or other representative who does provide compassionate, effective guidance and support to help young people take concrete steps to turn their lives around. As reporting families and the Ubuntu Village team assert, such positives should be the norm, not the exception, within the system.
To read and download the full report, including a number of proposed solutions drawn from parent feedback, click here.
In another new report, the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute digs into California state data to share its own findings and spotlight the outsized role race and ethnicity play in the institutional placement of young people in contact with the juvenile justice system.
In Unlocking Opportunity: How Race, Ethnicity and Place Affect the Use of Institutional Placements in California, the Burns Institute reports that the majority (75%) of California youth receiving court-ordered placement or incarceration in a state facility were committed due to non-violent offenses, with 20% committed on “technical violations.”
As the report details, most of these youth “do not pose a public safety threat.” Yet they are still often removed from their homes and families for institutional placement, which is tied to a host of diminished outcomes, including higher rates of trauma, and higher rates of recidivism, particularly among youth placed in the most punitive facilities.
The report also details how the vast majority (88%) of California youth receiving institutional placement are youth of color, who are more likely to receive placement than their white counterparts, even when controlling for offense.
Unlocking Opportunity shares additional findings and background information on the use of institutional placement in California, related policies and reforms in the state, and a host of recommendations to reduce, and collect more data about, the use of such placements.
Reflecting the findings of Ubuntu Village, among the key takeaways from the Burns Institute report is the need to meaningfully engage families, community-based organizations, and other culturally relevant support networks to support youth in their homes and provide authentic rehabilitation in place of counterproductive punitive measures.
To read and download the Burns Institute’s full report, including detailed county-level data regarding institutional placement practices and outcomes, click here.
The mission of Ubuntu Village is to provide programming that delivers social, economic, and transformational justice to children and communities. Ubuntu works primarily with youth who are involved in the criminal justice system and their families. Through tackling issues like juvenile justice, mass incarceration, racism, unemployment, trauma, joblessness, individualism, and divisiveness, Ubuntu works towards more just and equitable solutions that enable people confronted with multiple oppressions to overcome them in unity. For more information, visit ubuntuvillagenola.org.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) works to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity by building a community-centered response to youthful misbehavior that is equitable and restorative. BI facilitates a collaborative environment where community and system stakeholders work strategically, using data to reduce racial and ethnic disparity. The organization supports capacity building of families and organizations to redirect resources to community-based interventions, thus reducing system involvement. For more information, visit burnsinstitute.org.