Primary Sources: Better Approaches to Juvenile Justice

Photograph of street art in Philadelphia.

This month we look at two publications that answer an urgent question: How can we better serve young people caught up in our nation’s juvenile justice system?

One answer: Be positive. Youthful offenders are often considered either victims or villains with no in-between, say the authors of “Positive Youth Justice: Framing Justice Interventions Using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development,” published this year by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. They propose that those who work with youth in legal trouble take a page from the Positive Youth Development approach, which views youth as resources to be tapped rather than problems to be solved.

The Positive Youth Justice Model, as the authors call their framework, focuses on two core assets for youth. The first is “learning/doing,” which means enabling young offenders to develop and actively use new skills—and to become more confident as a result. The second is “attaching/belonging,” which means that youth feel valued as active members of a larger group or community that seeks to benefit and serve others.

These core assets, the authors say, can be developed within six areas of youths’ lives: work, education, relationships, community, health and creativity. For instance, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program channels the creative energy of youth in trouble for graffiti and minor crimes into making murals and public art. Youth learn and do by creating the art, and get a sense of attachment and belonging by working as a team.

What else can we do to better serve youth in the juvenile justice system?

Give every youth accused of breaking the law access to good legal counsel, say the authors of “The Cost of Justice: How Low-Income Youth Continue to Pay the Price of Failing Indigent Defense Systems,” published in last year’s Symposium issue of the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision gave all youth tried in delinquency cases the right to quality representation in court, regardless of income or background. But more than 40 years later, the authors of this article argue, youth who cannot afford private counsel are ill-served by the systems set up to defend them, public defenders receive inadequate funding, and public opinion is often hostile toward allowing youth the right to due process.

The authors recommend engaging youth and their families, judges, defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, the broader legal community and the public in designing reforms. Recent innovations geared toward improving representation around the country include the following:

  • New California legislation that ensures youthful detainees don’t have to wait for counsel and are allowed to consult with their defender prior to a hearing;
  • Efforts by sites participating in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to assign paralegals to help overloaded public defenders investigate local community-based services and alternatives to detention; and
  • Louisiana’s Juvenile Regional Services, the first standalone office to focus exclusively on juvenile defense.

Publications listed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY Literature Database for abstracts of these and other publications.

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