Juvenile justice reform efforts should more directly engage youth who have had first-hand experience of the juvenile justice system and whose experience could help shape more effective prevention and diversion programs, a report from the Pittsburgh Foundation argues.
Based on discussion groups conducted with more than fifty youth about their experiences with school suspensions and the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, the report, A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Pilot Project (31 pages, PDF), highlights the importance of paying attention to the actual experiences of youth and the factors that led to their involvement with the system. The latter include racial and gender disparities in how youth are treated by the juvenile justice system; the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse in their homes, communities, and schools; disciplinary practices that criminalize common youth behaviors and label them as "delinquents"; lack of access to supportive adults and mental health services; structural racism that promotes negative self-images among youth of color; and policies and practices that often punish youth for circumstances beyond their control.
In addition to ensuring that youth have a seat at the table along with human services staff, law-enforcement authorities, and school officials, the study calls for greater focus on addressing disproportionate involvement with the juvenile justice system among youth of color, especially girls; supporting efforts aimed at reforming school culture, curricula, and disciplinary policies, including restorative justice programs; supporting prevention and diversion initiatives; and increasing access to caring adults and mental health services. The report also recommends engaging youth as advocates and agents of change among their peers; supporting reform of court-related fees and restitution systems; and funding interdisciplinary training opportunities.
"If we mean to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, reform efforts must include listening to youth and involving them fundamentally in shaping programs and policy actions," said Pittsburgh Foundation president and CEO Maxwell King. "The most valuable insights come from young people willing to offer unflinching descriptions of their lives against a backdrop of poverty and the juvenile justice system."