According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the New York House of Refuge, established in 1825, was one of the first institutions specifically intended for youth who might display unsavory behavior because of the social issues they were experiencing. The need for this establishment was identified by the work of Thomas Eddy and John Griscom of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism. Eddy and Griscom were early adopters of justice reform because of their opposition to youth being institutionalized in adult systems for reasons such as poverty, neglect, or unstable housing. The house of refuge model was quickly adopted by other states, launching what is now commonly referred to as the juvenile justice system.
Time, practice, and science have informed how juvenile justice programs—correctional institutions, court systems, and youth-focused programs—function. With centuries of information about what works and what doesn’t, individual states nationwide are continually rethinking their response to youth who become justice-involved. Effective reform decisions are not made lightly. They are informed by an extensive history of juvenile justice practices and, most importantly, evidence-based strategies implemented to fidelity.
Administrators and supervisors in the justice system are uniquely positioned to share, explore, and implement evidence-based strategies when evaluating juvenile justice programs. The key to these evaluations is the ability to:
- Understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences and trauma
- Provide trauma-informed care in a justice setting
- Understand and work with resistant behavior
- Work with youth without housing
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Many of us experience adverse childhood experiences; however, the level and frequency to which at-risk groups experience them is much greater and can have significant long-term impacts. As shared in previous blog posts, considering adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) when evaluating and refining justice programs is critical. The evidence-based ACE study, initially conducted by Kaiser-Permanente in the mid-90s, continues to inform prevention practices, guidelines, and policies because of ACEs' significant impact on future health and well-being.
In the United States, youth with high ACE scores are more likely to interact with the juvenile justice system. To counter this, it is important that juvenile justice programs use evidence-based strategies, interventions, and therapy models that have been extensively proven to effectively address the adverse experiences reported in the ACE study, as well as any trauma associated with the experience(s).
Implementing evidence-based practices enables juvenile justice professionals to improve outcomes while maximizing their investment of resources. Decades of experience demonstrate that aligning justice and behavioral health systems around evidence-based policies and practices offers the greatest promise of youth success.
The report "Transforming Juvenile Probation" by the Annie E. Casey Foundation underscores the benefits of pre-and post-charge diversion programs. These programs, when integrated with the guidance of behavioral health systems and community-based programs, can successfully steer youth away from the justice system and lead them toward programs, support, and appropriate supervision within their community.
According to the report, at least 60% of juvenile referrals nationwide could be diverted if cases for young people charged with misdemeanors or first-time nonviolent felonies never reach juvenile court. By partnering with behavioral health systems and community-based programs, juvenile justice professionals can direct youth away from the justice system and connect them with programs, support, and appropriate supervision in their community. These diversion programs not only reduce recidivism but also help youth remain in their home and community, subsequently decreasing out-of-home placement costs.
The best practice is to utilize evidence-based diversion strategies as soon as someone has involvement with the juvenile justice system; however, diversion strategies can be incorporated at any point of a youth’s involvement with the juvenile justice system. Diversion programs can and should be tailored to meet the needs of the youth where they are—literally and figuratively; especially those youth who are struggling with mental health or substance use disorder. Benefits of diversion programs, identified by youth.gov, include:
- Reduction of premature involvement in the “deep end” of the juvenile justice system
- Reduction in out-of-home placements, especially for younger children
- Maintain youth connectedness and engagement in the community (by keeping youth in their environment)
- Reduction in cost (compared to court process and/or secure placement)
Restorative justice is another evidence-based strategy proven to reduce recidivism by bringing everyone impacted by the delinquent act together in a structured, non-adversarial manner. Restorative justice provides an opportunity to hold youth accountable, helps youth acknowledge the impact of their actions on the victim and the community, and allows youth to repair the harm caused. This program is proven effective for youth who have participated in minor or nonviolent offenses; however, it has also been used with youth adjudicated of violent offenses.
Regular evaluation of juvenile justice programs allows justice professionals an enhanced ability to determine if the program is meeting needs and to identify opportunities for improvement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are six steps involved in program evaluation:
- Engage stakeholders
- Describe the program
- Focus on the evaluation design
- Gather credible evidence
- Justify conclusions
- Ensure use and lessons shared
While these steps are focused on public health programs, it is also helpful in evaluating juvenile justice programs.
Juvenile justice professionals can influence behavior change and help people make lasting positive changes by ensuring their programs and strategies are evidence-based. Evidence-based practices have been shown through scientific research to produce positive outcomes. National Institute of Corrections has identified eight core principles of evidence-based practices that are proven to result in a greater reduction of criminal recidivism:
- Use actuarial assessments
- Enhance motivation to change
- Use targeted interventions
- Skill train with directed practice
- Increase positive reinforcements
- Engage ongoing family and community support
- Ensure fidelity to processes and practices
- Use data as a guide
Implementation of these six steps and eight core principles when evaluating juvenile justice programs will bolster both the services provided to and the outcomes achieved for youth with justice involvement.
Related Resources from Carey Group
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Decades of experience demonstrate that aligning justice systems around evidence-based policies and practices offers the greatest promise of success. Carey Group offers services and products for justice system professionals, from evidence-based consulting to interactive workbooks that help improve the mental health and lives of people with involvement in the justice system.
Carey Group’s evidence-based training and consulting services address the needs of the justice system and behavioral health professionals. Training is an essential tool for keeping staff, supervisors, leadership, and stakeholders up to date with emerging knowledge and expectations for improved outcomes. Carey Group offers in-person, online, and self-directed courses on evidence-based practices, motivational interviewing, core professional competencies, case planning and management, continuous quality improvement, coaching, and the use of behavior-change tools and supervisor resources.