Helping Teens in the Justice System: Tapping the Community

The juvenile justice field has been one of the last to accept a strength-based or asset-based community development approach to working with young people and to working with communities to reduce juvenile crime.
However, based on pioneering work on a strength-based bill of rights for juvenile offenders developed by Laura Nissen, Executive Director of Reclaiming Futures and many other asset-based practitioners, the idea of a community development approach to juvenile justice has been slowly taking hold.  

I had the opportunity a few years ago through the Asset-Based Community Development Institute to contract with Reclaiming Futures to train program sites in the asset-based community development process in order to identify communities’ individual, voluntary association, institutional, economic and geographic assets in order to mobilize those assets to identify community resources to enhance community supports for young people involved in the juvenile justice system.
This built on a movement already occurring within Reclaiming Futures to use what they called “natural helpers.” Natural helpers are community members and professionals who become advocates, mentors and supports for young people in the juvenile justice system identified with alcohol and drug misuse issues. They assist young people in making positive connections in their communities in order to support them in making responsible and positive choices for themselves and their communities. [See especially the Reclaiming Futures site in Montgomery County, Ohio - Ed.]
Other sites mapped their resources/assets and found new ways to utilize those resources to both prevent young people from entering the juvenile justice system and to assist young people who were already part of the system.
In Connecticut, where I work, we do not have a Reclaiming Futures site. However, inspired by Reclaiming Futures and a growing movement to utilize asset-based community approaches, we formed local juvenile justice task forces and from that created the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, all of which work from the asset-based community development values and practices. This effort has been extremely successful in developing new community supports and services for young people as well as reforming outmoded state laws on the age of jurisdiction, out-of-school suspensions and the way we treat status offenders to reduce the number of young people entering the juvenile justice system by 40% in just 5 years.
Each new service or support, be they family support centers, community juvenile review boards or changing probation and court procedures, builds on the community’s and young person’s assets and addresses each young person individually to utilize their strengths for self-improvement--and community improvement in the way we treat young people who have made mistakes.  
Much of the inspiration for this work emanated from the principles and practices of Reclaiming Futures and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.
[Robert Francis is on the faculty of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. On September 10-12, the Institute is hosting a conference in Chicago where you can learn more about how to use asset-based community development to tap your community to help adolescents in the juvenile justice system. --Ed.]
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Updated: March 21 2018