A Better Path Forward: Restructuring Systems to Support Crossover Youth
Thank you, Michael [Umpierre], I’m so pleased to join you all today. I want to thank Michael and everyone at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform for the outstanding work you do on behalf of our youth. I’d also like to give a shout-out to my friend and former colleague, Shay Bilchik. Shay and I both worked for Janet Reno back in the 90s, and I know from our time together how passionate he is about serving the young people of our country. I’m so grateful that we have visionaries like Shay and like Michael in our field doing this vital work.
It’s a huge privilege to be part of an event that takes the name and honors the spirit of one of my all-time heroes. Janet Reno was a true champion of our youth, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her and to be guided by her influence, which was deep and infectious.
Very early in my career, I was working for a youth-serving organization in Worcester, Massachusetts, and my boss took me to hear Attorney General Reno speak in a school gym. This was the early days of the Clinton Administration, and I was so moved by her enthusiasm and her earnestness about helping youth to thrive that I knew I, too, wanted to work at the Department of Justice. So that became my dream. I went to graduate school for public policy, and was fortunate to join the National Institute of Justice at a truly exciting time, with Jeremy Travis as Director.
I was a very junior staffer at the time, but still had the opportunity to work with, and even travel with, Attorney General Reno. She was so positive, so authentic, so practical and yet so ambitious about what she wanted to achieve. She was a wonderful role model and an inspiration to so many of us… and she created a Department where professionalism and humanness were modeled, where analysis and creativity could coexist, where leadership and partnership were valued, and where safe and healthy communities were truly the prize.
It is such an honor to be back at the Department, and to try to recreate this kind of culture, to carry on her legacy of compassion, empathy and humanity, which is sorely needed today. I can only hope to bring to my role just a touch of what she inspired in all who worked with her.
As I hope you can hear, I am grateful to be part of an Administration that cares about so many of the things that she cared about, especially the safety and well-being of our young people. This is a time when our attention should be focused on youth, particularly those who are at risk of victimization and/or justice system involvement. Violent crime is on the rise in a number of communities, and our nation’s default response to any increase in crime rates has always been decidedly punitive, even – and sometimes especially – when youth are involved. We want to make sure we’re not letting our policies and practices drift back in that direction because we know that they do more harm than good.
Fortunately, we are seeing a gathering movement toward a more humane, less punitive and more effective approach to young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Juvenile arrests and residential placements are at historic lows, which reflect an encouraging change in mindset about both the potential of youth and the role of the system. Instead of warehousing and writing off kids who engage in delinquent behavior, policymakers and practitioners are taking stock of the brain science and recognizing the capacity of kids to respond positively and productively to support and intervention.
We’ve seen a remarkable shift in the way we talk about juvenile justice, due in no small part to the research that’s been done in developmental psychology and neurobiology. The research makes it clear that young people have different cognitive equipment from adults, and that makes a profound difference, both in their susceptibility to delinquent behavior and in their ability to change that behavior.
What the science tells us is that youthful delinquent behavior does not naturally evolve into adult criminality. In fact, quite the opposite. Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funded the landmark Pathways to Desistance study, which followed more than 1,300 adjudicated youth for seven years. What it found is that the vast majority of juveniles who offend, even those who commit serious crimes, grow out of antisocial activity as they enter adulthood.
That, of course, does not mean that youth who engage in wrongful behavior shouldn’t be held accountable, but I think it does mean that we need to continue to re-think what we mean by “accountability.” If we rely on developmentally-appropriate responses, and reserve detention or incarceration only for the most serious cases, we have a better opportunity to reduce future criminal activity and help rebuild young lives.
Taking this a step further, the science shows that not only do we need a new conception of how to treat justice-involved youth, we need to reconsider the idea of youth itself. Transition to adulthood does not happen at a fixed age, whether it’s 16 or 17 or 18. Changes take place in different parts of the brain at different times, and they continue to happen even well beyond the so-called “age of majority” – sometimes well into their 20s, at which point most young people who’ve committed crimes begin to age out of criminal behavior. In fact, relatively few people commit their first crime after the age of 25. But it must be mentioned that there are two factors that impede this natural aging-out process – trauma and incarceration, both of which can affect and delay brain development.
We need to look critically at how we’re intervening with our youth, and what damage we may be doing by not aligning our responses with the evidence.
Fortunately, and thanks to the hard work and advocacy of many of you, we’ve seen a modest shift among policymakers and legislators in deference to the science. States both red and blue have raised the age of criminal responsibility, treating youth as people who are still in the formative stages of development and therefore have the capacity to change, to grow and to mature. Just to take one example, a law went into effect earlier this month in Missouri requiring courts to automatically treat 17-year-olds as juveniles rather than adults if they’re taken into custody. There are now more than 40 states where the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction is 17 or older. This is a positive trend, although – as you know – these changes don’t come without some resistance and, in my view, do not yet go far enough.
But along with these encouraging developments, there are some challenges we must face. Among them are long-standing inequities that have penalized, and continue to penalize, people of color, including minority youth. A recent report from the Sentencing Project found that Black youth are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be held in juvenile facilities. That is unacceptable. And yet it must be said, it is a modest improvement from the disparities we saw just a few years ago. The report also highlighted significant variation across states, and there are still states like New Jersey, where Black youth are more than 17 times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.
The incarceration rate of Latinx youth is also higher than the rate for white youth, although it has improved considerably. But tribal youth disparities have grown worse. Tribal youth are now more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. We’ve clearly got a lot of work to do.
Of course, these disparities carry over to youth who are dually involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. A study funded by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that dual system youth in fact had higher rates of overrepresentation of Black youth. For instance, in Cook County, Chicago, Black children accounted for 60 percent of kids who were only involved in the child welfare system, 69 percent of those only involved in the juvenile justice system and 79 percent of those youth dually involved in both systems.
This underscores and punctuates the many challenges that crossover youth in general face – the lack of a stable living situation, the history of trauma that so many experience, higher rates of mental health and substance use issues, and harsher treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. Added together, these factors keep kids from escaping the orbit of the justice system and, in fact, they often drive them deeper into it.
It’s very important to keep in mind that most youth who enter the juvenile justice system already have experiences of victimization that result in intervention by child welfare agencies. These dual-status youth experience traumatic interpersonal events at a higher rate than youth in the general population, and this trauma leads to behavioral issues that often contribute to delinquent activity. And when juvenile justice and child welfare officials don’t communicate with one another, these young people are left without the proper intervention and mental health services that would help them recover from their trauma.
As this group knows, dual system youth tend to have longer histories in child welfare, more out-of-home placements and higher recidivism rates than youth who experience child welfare or juvenile justice alone, which is why greater coordination between the two systems is critical. Ideally, administrative data systems would be integrated, or at least in contact with each other, so that kids who need services are identified early. We need our juvenile justice and child welfare systems to work together to make sure these young people aren’t overlooked and/or marginalized.
We know that where interagency collaboration is strongest, mental health and behavioral outcomes are best assured. And that is why the work that the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform is doing under its Crossover Youth Practice Model is so important. As I’m sure you’re hearing at this conference, evaluations of the model suggest that increased collaboration efforts between child welfare agencies and the juvenile justice system lead to an overall reduction in recidivism, a reduction in the severity of new crimes, an increase in cases being dismissed or diverted and an improvement in the youth’s pro-social behavior. These are very impressive outcomes.
I understand the model has been introduced in more than 120 jurisdictions across the country. I want to applaud the Center for working to fill this gap in services and for helping to lead our nation’s response to justice-involved youth – and I hope that we can find ways to work together to build on this great work.
I’d like to return for a moment to the point I made earlier about racial disparities in our systems of justice. President Biden has made it clear that advancing equity and racial justice is a top priority of his Administration, and it’s the responsibility of the whole of our government. This is also a top priority for me, and I am very encouraged to see the whole-of-government approach. You can expect full commitment from the Office of Justice Programs and OJJDP. We are committed to playing a central role in achieving this important goal.
For example, OJJDP is funding a number of programs this year that will support youth in the system and help achieve greater equity. Our juvenile indigent defense program will help ensure that youth in the juvenile justice system have access to high-quality legal representation and resources to address the collateral consequences of their contact with the system. And our Second Chance Act youth reentry program will be making more resources available to help young people get the services they need to get back on their feet and become productive, thriving members of their communities.
OJJDP is also making $8 million available under its Juvenile Justice System Reform Initiative. This program will develop and test research-based responses to public safety challenges, with an eye on improving outcomes for youth. We’ve seen great success with this program since it was launched seven years ago. To take one example, juvenile justice reforms in Kansas led to the state increasing their use of community-based programs as an alternative to placing young people in locked detention. This has improved outcomes for youth and saved the state more than $30 million.
I’ll also mention that our Children Exposed to Violence Initiative and our Comprehensive Youth Violence Prevention and Reduction Program are part of a Biden Administration strategy to support intervention efforts in communities hit hard by violence. Gun violence is claiming too many lives and exacting a heavy toll on people of color. The Administration’s Community Violence Intervention strategy is using a combination of prevention, intervention and reentry measures to improve community safety and to help youth find a positive and productive way out of criminal involvement.
We’re proposing to build on these investments, too. The President’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget requests almost $800 million for juvenile justice programs – more than double existing levels – with an aim to keep kids out of the justice system and supported in their communities whenever possible.
One of its major proposals is $100 million for a Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration program that will provide incentives to jurisdictions that introduce reforms designed to reduce youth incarceration. This program will also help grantees address non-construction costs, such as staffing and/or equipment, associated with repurposing empty juvenile detention facilities for the benefit of youth.
The budget also calls for significantly more money for juvenile indigent defense and additional funding for programs like the ones I’ve mentioned that address community violence. You’ll see a theme of reform throughout this Administration, with focus placed squarely on supporting youth at the front end of the system.
We are on the right path. Our juvenile justice system is reclaiming its mission to support kids and ensure that they are valued members of our communities. We are relying less on punishment and more on mentoring, education, training and other pro-social measures that can bring long-lasting, positive change. We are focusing our lens on the potential in our youth.
I couldn’t put it better than Janet Reno herself, who once said, “there are so many magnificent and wonderful young people in this nation who, if given only half a fighting chance, want so much to contribute, to make a difference, to be part of this nation, to be part of its destiny. It is important that we work together to give them that future.”