Last month, the Pittsburgh Foundation released a new report, A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Pilot Project, which calls on human services staffs, law enforcement authorities, and school officials to provide youth involved with the juvenile justice system not just a seat but a bench at the table where prevention and diversion programs are shaped and developed.
We expected the report, which builds on a substantial body of research by giants in the field such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to generate dialogue among our regional human services, philanthropic, and academic partners. But we were surprised that it prompted not only a local newspaper editorial but also requests for republication from an international juvenile justice organization in Brussels and a Boston-based journal that covers the nonprofit sector.
As one local advocate put it, "Who knew that talking to people would be so novel?"
The outside attention reinforces what we learned in our direct engagement with young people: their voices, which carry knowledge and authority from personal experience with the system, have been missing from the body of research on the system.
The focus on amplifying the voices of people directly affected is a core value of our 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, which we adopted in 2015 to address inequality in our region. Despite significant advances in Pittsburgh's economy, at least one-third of the regional population struggles with poverty. Research, including this 2014 Urban Institute study we commissioned, shows that youth between the ages of 12 and 24 and single women raising children are at the top of the list of groups most at risk. Young people with justice system involvement are particularly vulnerable.
For our foundation, the eighteen-month participatory research study strengthened our own understanding of the juvenile justice system in a local context. It also improved our own capacity to listen — ethically and responsibly — to the real experts: youth and their advocates. These young people were as eloquent as they were adamant: "Don't sugarcoat my situation," they told us. "Don't tell me what's in my best interest: ask instead."
Our expectation is that this study will prompt others in the field to ask: What can philanthropy do locally and nationally to bolster restorative justice practices and increase mental health supports in schools and the law enforcement system? How might we call further attention to the disproportionality of punishment, particularly for girls of color, and reform restitution fee policies that trap youth from low-income households in the school-to-prison pipeline?
We also recognize the responsibility of our sector to continually call attention to community-specific challenges stemming from racism and poverty. A 2015 demographics review by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Race and Social Problems found alarming disparities for African Americans in nearly every metric of well-being. In Allegheny County, 13 percent of residents are African American, while 69 percent of youth referred to juvenile probation in 2015 were African American. Heartbreakingly, a County Health Department mortality report also found that forty-six of the fifty-six juveniles murdered in Allegheny County in 2012 were African American.
While there is much work to be done, we commend the Allegheny County Office of Juvenile Probation for being one of the more progressive juvenile justice systems nationally through its utilization of the Juvenile Justice Enhancement Strategy. This new approach has led to systemwide reforms. It integrates evidence-based research and practice-based policies with involvement in novel national efforts to improve outcomes for youth who are involved with the system. Two that stand out are the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the Crossover Youth Practice Model developed by Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, which improves outcomes for youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
In this initial pilot, our research team did not organize focus groups of young people who, in addition to their juvenile justice system involvement, also have disabilities, or identify as LGBTQ, or have dual involvement with our local office of Children, Youth and Families. We believe, however, that their experiences will offer additional specific and actionable recommendations for policy reform and should be the basis for next steps in terms of both national and regional reform efforts.
We encourage our colleagues to join us in this work.
Maxwell King is president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.