Infusing Positive Youth Development in Juvenile Justice Reform

The birth of the U.S. youth justice system is often tagged as the founding of the first juvenile court, authorized by the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899. The rationale for creating a separate system was that young people were fundamentally different than adults, so the focus should be on assisting youth to get back on track by addressing their individual needs. Additionally, the implementation of policies like confidentiality of records also helped youth move forward and become successful adults.

However, the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s affected not just adult sentencing and corrections; it also pushed the juvenile justice system away from its original rehabilitative origins. During this period, many states redefined the purpose of juvenile courts to emphasize public safety, certainty of punishment, and accountability, and created more avenues by which youth could be transferred to adult criminal courts. The number of youth confined in secure residential placements skyrocketed, from under 67,000 in 1985, to over 108,000 in 2000. This led to what is commonly referred to as the “warehousing” of youth in correctional facilities that were often overcrowded and lacking in the very elements that are necessary to meet the original goal of the juvenile justice system – to provide needed services to help youth succeed.

Washington, D.C. in the mid-2000s was one such place where youth were being incarcerated at a growing rate, in facilities that were so bad that the courts had stepped in. As Forum President & CEO Mishaela Durán recently noted, speaking of the state of the system when she arrived there in 2005: “The youth rarely participated in school, recreation, or any other programs or activities…There were rats coming through the sewage pipes at Oak Hill [the youth prison], no behavioral health supports, and very little educational programming… Staff were not trained in youth development [and most] had worked at Lorton, an adult prison in Virginia that had closed.”

Facing potential federal receivership and the need for reform, the D.C. mayor created a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), with leadership focused on creating a system that would help, not harm, the youth under their jurisdiction. Forward-thinking leaders were hired and tasked with changing the DC youth justice system from one that “failed to provide appropriate care, rehabilitation, and treatment… in violation of the Constitution and the District of Columbia Code,” to a model for states around the country.  The framework they used incorporated the key principles of Positive Youth Development (PYD); this model has come to be known as Positive Youth Justice.

How Positive Youth Justice Draws on PYD

To understand Positive Youth Justice, it is important to level-set on what is meant by “Positive Youth Development” (PYD). While there are some different iterations on the definition, programs that incorporate PYD generally:

  1. Recognize and enhance young people’s assets and strengths;
  2. Engage young people in program design and delivery; and
  3. Improve youth outcomes by providing equitable high-quality opportunities in community-based settings that:
    • Address barriers to participation.
    • Emphasize skill-building.
    • Foster developmental relationships.
    • Cultivate supportive environments that promote belonging, autonomy, youth voice, leadership, and contribution.
    • Center and advance equity in a manner that is actionable and measurable for youth from communities and groups that historically have been marginalized.

Given that the youth justice system was founded on principles of rehabilitation, applying a PYD approach in this system might seem uncontroversial. However, agencies often focus on the deficits of the youth and how to “fix” them. Additionally, some adults may assume that justice-involved youth are “different” from other youth in ways that make PYD not applicable to them. Lastly, those who see the function of the youth justice system to be accountability and punishment may believe that these youth are not deserving of an approach that focuses on strengths, relationship and skill building, and active participation in the very system that they are involved in.

A Positive Youth Justice (PYJ) approach rejects these assumptions. It recognizes that youth in the justice system are largely like other adolescents, although they may have fewer social assets to call upon. Their behavior, even when considered delinquent, is often “normative,” that is, related to their stage of brain development; this can lead them to engage in more risks without adequately considering the consequences, and highly valuing peer approval. Justice-involved youth are equally in need of education and skill development and would particularly benefit from positive relationships with caring and supportive adults. Additionally, a PYJ approach emphasizes a system where youth are in settings that promote the development of a pro-social identity; given that juvenile correctional confinement can hinder successful transition to adulthood, diverting youth from residential placements whenever possible and building strong community supports and services is crucial.

Implementing a Positive Youth Development Framework: D.C.’s Example

In Washington, D.C., with scope over many state functions, DYRS and other government officials took several bold steps to transform their system into one with a Positive Youth Justice framework. Those included:

  • Leveraging other systems to divert more youth away from court involvement. In 2015, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General created the Alternatives to Court Experience (ACE) diversion program. Run by the D.C. Department of Human Services, the ACE program creates a customized program of wrap-around services to help youth succeed. In addition to showing improved outcomes for youth, ACE also costs the District less than probation, incarceration, or other residential placement.
  • Collaborating across systems to build off the strengths of youth and expand opportunity. Working with their counterparts in child welfare and mental health, DYRS instituted Team Decision Making (TDM) meetings. TDM is an international best practice originating in New Zealand where youth and their families or other care givers, case managers, and caring adults in the community develop action plans based on the youth’s interests, strengths, and family and community connections.
  • Partnering with community-based organizations. What began as informal partnerships has been formalized into two Achievement Centers, which are hubs for the agency’s wide array of community-based initiatives. One of the centers is near the courthouse complex, while the other is in area where justice-involved youth disproportionately live. These initiatives also focus on PYD core elements, providing “all the key ingredients necessary to help youth develop their strengths, develop confidence in their ability to succeed, develop a sense of belonging, and value and serve the larger community.”
  • Re-imagining the secure juvenile facility. Oak Hill, the large decrepit facility, was dismantled. C. followed the lead of Missouri, which had replaced its large, warehouse-like facilities with smaller, homelike facilities closer to where the youth lived. The 200-bed prison was replaced with a smaller 60-bed, campus-like facility, “New Beginnings Youth Development Center.”  The six domains of PYJ serve as the foundation for their system. Youth who need them receive behavioral health services and other therapeutic services. Education is provided by the Maya Angelou Academy, a charter school run by the See Forever Foundation that has a strong track record for producing strong educational outcomes for youth of color, including college readiness and completion. Youth at New Beginnings also have access to vocational training and workforce development, art programs, and civic and community engagement opportunities.
  • Training staff. A training institute was created to support both existing and new staff with shifting to the new model, providing training in the tenets of Positive Youth Development and how to apply them in a justice setting.

Key Components of Positive Youth Justice

Experts in the fields of youth justice and youth development have laid out some of the core components of a Positive Youth Justice framework.  In the publication Positive Youth Justice: Framing Justice Interventions using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development,” Jeffrey A. Butts and his co-authors spotlight what should happen within juvenile justice agencies and their programs. This model focuses on building key youth assets in two areas: learning/doing and attaching/belonging.  Learning/doing includes activities that help youth demonstrate competency and reliability in taking on positive and meaningful new roles.  Attaching/belonging focuses on building social supports including positive adult relationships and peer influences and providing youth opportunities to actively participate and make a meaningful contribution to their community. These assets can and should be built across the domains of work; education; health; creativity; community; and relationships.

In his publication, “A Positive Youth Justice System,” David Muhammad provides a roadmap for reform that focuses on systems level changes that need to occur. (Muhammad was also on the team spearheading reforms in D.C.) To support positive youth development, youth justice systems should:

  • Keep youth out of the system entirely whenever possible. Youth should have access to programs and services in the community without having to be under court supervision. Growing evidence shows that youth who are diverted away from justice involvement do as well as or better than those who are system-involved.
  • Reduce the use of detention and confinement and try to keep youth in their homes and communities. Placing youth in facilities can lead to worse outcomes, so these should be reserved for cases where public safety is truly at risk.
  • Collaborate with youth and families. Co-creating case plans can improve a sense of buy-in and shared ownership.
  • For youth who are in facilities, provide exceptional care using a Positive Youth Development framework that builds strengths and addresses needs.
  • Reinvest, particularly in community-based organizations. State and local agencies can act as brokers and quality assurers of programs provided in the community.

From Failing System to National Model

In 2008, DYRS was a semifinalist for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations Award in Children and Family System Reform – going from a dangerous and counterproductive system to one that was nationally recognized.  As a testament to the success of the D.C. transformation to PYJ, the reforms begun in the mid-2000s have been sustained through four different mayoral administrations, and were a large part of the court’s decision in 2020 to end the 35-year-old consent decree that the District’s juvenile justice system had been under. And it has shown that all youth – and perhaps particularly those who have become justice-involved – stand to benefit from a system that incorporates the tenets of Positive Youth Development, by building upon their strengths, providing opportunities to build their skills, and involving them in the co-creation of their own futures.