Nothing About Us Without Us! The Failure of the Modern Juvenile Justice System and a Call for Community-Based Justice
The modern juvenile justice system is failing our society. A literature review reveals resounding criticism of the system at all points—arrest, court processing, and incarceration. The current system does not effectively reduce recidivism, is wrought with racial disparities, operates with a minimal degree of cultural competence, violates human rights norms, and fails to empower and reform individuals who are directly affected. The current system shatters social bonds and does not hold governmental agencies accountable for wrongdoing or ineffectiveness. Community-based approaches more effectively reduce crime, cost less, are more empowering and culturally competent, help ameliorative civic fragmentation, and are more socially responsible.
The definition of community-based approaches to juvenile justice entails any, and ideally all, of the following: 1) Empowerment of communities and youth who grapple with mass over-incarceration, poverty, violence, under-performing schools, a lack of mental health and health care services, and a dearth of opportunities for growth and development. Such empowerment should honor the expertise and leadership of those directly impacted by the issues; 2) Cultural competence that merges legal service delivery, capacity-building, and advising with the cultural traditions, methodologies, and linguistic elements of the populations receiving services, while acknowledging the concrete causes of racial disparities and injustice; 3) Support for the formation of social bonds across structural, perceived, and actual adversarial boundaries; 4) Support from the private and public sectors alike; 5) The ability to hold government agencies, especially law enforcement, accountable through legal structures and requirements, community engagement, and varied cultural methodologies; 6) A foundation in human rights laws and norms.
The status quo juvenile justice system is developmentally unsuitable for children. Work in the NJ Family Lawyer highlights brain research and US Dept. of Health data, which reveal that teenagers exhibit distinct behavior regardless of their race or socio-economic status. Delinquency is normative, but is criminalized depending on the social location of the youth and community involved. This evidence provides rationale for treating children in far less punitive ways. Moreover, traditional juvenile justice creates generations of “disconnected youth.”
Additionally, the status quo system lacks cultural competence. Approaches that call for more professional intervention in the lives of disadvantaged communities, more justice system involvement, significant incarceration, and that fail to recognize the assets and self-determination within these communities, will fail to effect lasting change. The current system transplants children out of their home communities, depletes those communities of social assets, isolates the children in prison, offers them scarce and fragmented services, and expects the children to return home and thrive. Research shows that children are returning home in worse shape than when they departed. Extremely medicalized, evidence-based programs like Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) have proven effective by working with at-risk families and youth in their individual homes, but do not change the disadvantaged surroundings and the dearth of opportunities that the family must grapple with when the program contact ends. Indigenous creation of stronger support systems for those who are tempted to choose crime are the most promising way towards change. Finally, community-based approaches to juvenile justice should be implemented because they cost drastically less than the status quo.
There is a host of community-based approaches to juvenile justice that work: Community-based Alternatives To Detention (ATDs) and Alternatives To Incarceration (ATIs); Balanced And Restorative Justice (victim-offender mediation, restitution, peer juries, youth courts, community service) programming; community engagement task forces; other community organizing efforts; Positive Youth Development (PYD); innovative educational programs; and creative ways of addressing police - youth conflict. Further, “Justice reinvestment” is a key to positive outcomes.
Overwhelming evidence shows that the current juvenile justice system will not lead to safety, justice, cost-effectiveness, or positive life outcomes for anyone except possibly those corporations and officials who directly profit from it. Community-based approaches need support from all sectors, but especially from the legal community and the private sector. We cannot continue to put stock in the current juvenile justice system without being disappointed at the results.
Key Take Away Points
An effective and humane juvenile justice system must feature:
Empowerment of communities and youth who grapple with mass over-incarceration, poverty, violence, under-performing schools, a lack of mental health and health care services, and a dearth of opportunities for growth and development. Such empowerment should honor the expertise and leadership of those directly impacted by the issues.
Cultural competence that merges legal service delivery, capacity-building, and advising with the cultural traditions, methodologies, and linguistic elements of the populations receiving services, while acknowledging the concrete causes of racial disparities and injustice; and utilizing developmentally appropriate resources and approaches to youth crime.
Support for the formation of social bonds across structural, perceived, and actual adversarial boundaries; support from the private and public sectors alike; the ability to hold government agencies, especially law enforcement, accountable through legal structures and requirements, community engagement, and varied cultural methodologies; and a foundation/accountability system rooted in human rights laws and norms.
Charisa Smith (Yale Law School ’05) works to empower youth, families, and communities, to keep children away from courts and jails, and to bring resources and opportunities to disadvantaged neighborhoods. She acts as a Staff Attorney at Advocates for Children of New York, Inc., where she provides educational advocacy to families with youth on probation; offers trainings for such families, youth, and various professionals; and collaborates with government officials and advocates to improve the system. Previously, Charisa was part of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program through her Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Fellowship. She spent two years there conducting re-entry advocacy for youth in Virginia, helping develop Families and Allies of Virginia’s Youth (FAVY), and convening a governmental task force. Charisa is fluent in Spanish and has worked in the juvenile and criminal justice field for ten years, in five different jurisdictions (CT, NJ, NY, DC, VA). She has performed feminist and youth-focused human rights work in Latin America, worked for the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, and teaches courses entitled “Children and the Law,” "Child Abuse and Neglect," and “The Black Child and the Urban Education System” at Brooklyn College (City University of New York, CUNY). Charisa is the author of a biography entitled Blending Colors From Life: Trenton’s Own Watercolorist, Tom Malloy (Africa World Press / Red Sea Press, 2007), which won at the 2010 NY Book Festival. In 2008, Charisa authored Don’t Wait Up—Issues in Juvenile Justice. (28 New Jersey Family Lawyer 144); and Juvenile Reentry in Richmond: Barriers, Cost Savings, and Giving Youth a Second Chance. (A JustChildren Program Report, January 2008). Charisa is also co-author of Confidentiality Statutes of Child Protection Proceedings. (CT Voices for Kids, http://www.ctkidslink.org/pub_detail_197.html, November 2004); and has penned numerous other articles and works. Charisa has been awarded Harvard University fellowships and awards such as the Michael Rockefeller Fellowship; the John Harvard and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Scholar Award; a Radcliffe Travel Fellowship; the Harvard Community Service Fellowship; the Education for Action and Steiner Community Service Fund Grants; a Spanish Language Citation; the Harvard Foundation Award for Outstanding Contributions to Race Relations; and the Harvard History Essay Prize. At Yale Law School, Charisa was awarded the Mary McCarthy Fellowship; the Schell Public Interest Law Fellowship; and the Arthur Liman Fellowship as previously noted.
Special thanks to my research assistant, Justin Hamano. Thanks beyond words to my partner Joya Colon-Berezin, whose support and encouragement enable this effort, many others, and true purpose.
Smith, Charisa Esq.
"Nothing About Us Without Us! The Failure of the Modern Juvenile Justice System and a Call for Community-Based Justice,"
Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 4:
1, Article 11.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.library.tmc.edu/childrenatrisk/vol4/iss1/11