Home News Center The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It

The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It

September 25, 2015
Anne Lee


[Part 6 in a series of posts celebrating NJJN's 10th anniversary and our nine principles of youth justice reform. See "Why Youth Reentry Matters"; "First,  Do No Harm"; "Got Gault? From Processing Youth to Due Process," Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and OpportunityBlocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison, and The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It. --Ed.]

Following decades of zero tolerance policies in the US, we are actually seeing a downward trend across the country in youth arrests and detention. But there are still far too many youth caught up in the system whose needs could be better addressed in the community, resulting in better prospects for long-term success. The truth is that most youth age out of delinquent behavior without any formal justice-system intervention. And we know youth are often better served if involvement in the justice system can be avoided.

Research confirms what youth, families and impacted communities have been saying for a long time -- the juvenile justice system does not produce positive outcomes for youth. Instead, it leads to negative outcomes in education and employment, and can increase the likelihood of future justice involvement. Incarceration in particular gets in the way of school success, family connectedness and meaningful treatment and support. To make matters worse, the juvenile justice system can saddle young people with impossible debts, lifelong registration requirements, and a persistent stigma that keep them from succeeding in life. 

That’s why it’s so important to divert youth from the justice system whenever possible. Diverting youth is one of the nine principles of reform adopted by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and its 52 member organizations in 39 states.  NJJN is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year by spotlighting these nine principles, and this month its focus is on diversion. 

TeamChild, NJJN’s member in Washington State, has tackled this by working on dismantling school discipline laws that drive students into the justice system. A few years ago, we partnered with Washington Appleseed to highlight the harsh impacts of school exclusion on students in Washington State. (Check out our video, above, showing the opportunities wasted when we push kids out of schools.) Our joint report, Reclaiming Students, resulted in changes to state law that put the brakes on indefinite expulsions and placed a new emphasis on schools keeping disciplined students engaged and on track for success in school. This was momentous: these were among the first changes to the state’s school discipline laws in 30 years. 

We recognize that there is always more work to do to ensure that children, families and communities actually experience the positive change envisioned when laws like these are passed. But we are seeing in Washington that each step forward opens up more opportunities to forge alliances with new stakeholders and amplify the voices of communities most impacted. These efforts in Washington and around the country are markers of progress towards a transformed justice system that keeps doors to opportunity and success open for young people.


juvenile-justice-reform_Annie-LeeAnne Lee is executive director of TeamChild.




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