Juvenile Justice Reform - Tell the Right Story & Keep Going!

What a Long Way We've Come
Almost exactly three years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in launching, writing, and editing a blog for Reclaiming Futures, focused on juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment.
My answer then: Would I ever!
Seven hundred and eighty-six posts later -- many authored by some of the leading experts in the field -- it's time for me to lay my figurative pen down. (Fortunately, I know I'm leaving the blog in very good hands; you can count on Reclaiming Futures to remain a go-to source for information in the fields of juvenile justice and adolescent substance abuse treatment.)
When I began, hardly anyone else was using blogging or social media to talk about juvenile justice or adolescent treatment. To say that's changed is an understatement. There's been a virtual explosion of skilled and thoughtful people disseminating news, opinion, new research, and best practices (in juvenile justice, anyway; teen treatment has a ways to go).
I think that's great. But it's not enough.

"And How Are the Children?"
Practically every day, I read or hear stories about communities that have made wonderful progress with reforming their juvenile justice systems. But then I'll hear about something truly egregious -- the kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania, or the cynical popularization of ineffective programs like "Scared Straight" -- and I'll be reminded that we have a long way to go.
Because the truth is, it isn't the extreme examples that define the state of juvenile justice practice in the United States, it's the average, everyday, business-as-usual systems that tell us how we're really doing -- and how our kids are doing. And I know I'm preaching to the choir on this, but in my opinion, while we're definitely improving despite a tough economic climate, we could be doing better. 
Juvenile Justice: Use Sparingly
One of the things I've always loved about Reclaiming Futures is that it doesn't give up on kids in the juvenile justice system. In fact, the whole point is to make sure that young people in trouble with the law get the treatment and services they need to be successful. (Plus, it also recognizes that teens need more than treatment to be successful: they need caring adults and opportunities to learn positive skills.)
But the juvenile justice system is a huge, blunt instrument. It moves slowly, it's terribly impersonal, and research tells us that in general, it doesn't fix kids, it makes kids more likely to commit new crimes. That's why Reclaiming Futures communities consciously focus on not "widening the net," or keeping kids in the system longer than they need to be. And that means asking ourselves, "What can we do to keep most kids out of the machine?" 
The Big Problem: How We Talk About the Issue
Juvenile justice has an image problem. The general public still tends to expect the juvenile justice system to "fix" kids who misbehave. They're afraid of teenagers. And even though juvenile crime is at an all-time low, the average citizen thinks it's skyrocketing.
Why? Because the news media usually tells stories about individuals -- they don't tend to talk about the complex problems and broader social forces that contribute to young people going astray.
According to News for a Change: an Advocates' Guide to Working with the Media, researcher Shanto Iyengar found that "when people see episodic news stories and then are asked what should be done about the problem covered in the news story, their response tends to be that the person with the problem should work harder to fix it." They blame the victim, in other words (though "victim" may not be quite the right word to use in this case.)
When the average citizen sees "thematic" stories, however, he or she tends to see government, businesses, and the broader society as responsible for the problem as well as individuals. 
A much more recent report by some of the authors of News for a Change on how the media frames youth violence came to much the same conclusion: telling stories about individual kids tends to reinforce the popular view that the problems those kids face are their own fault. 
Why does that matter? 
It makes it very hard to recruit adults to mentor young people in the justice system. It makes it hard to get them to care.
And I've seen recent polling results that indicate that whites and Latinos don't buy the argument that the juvenile justice system treats kids of color unfairly -- which has serious implications for addressing disproportionate minority contact.  
Telling the Right Story
We want to be successful and use research to build systems that hold youth accountable, protect community safety, and promote the possibility inherent in young people. To do that, we must (and I don't just mean communications professionals) find ways to reframe the discussion about teens in trouble with the law.
We have to switch the frame so that we stop talking about individual kids and get everybody talking about what communities can do to help youth and stop setting them up for failure. (For example: limiting the density of liquor stores, amazingly enough, will cut youth violence significantly.)
There are signs we're getting there with substance abuse. More people are beginning to talk about substance abuse as a public health problem than ever used to. But we have a ways to go when it comes to young people in trouble with the law. 
I don't have the answer on how best to change the conversation. I'm hoping that people much smarter than I can figure that out -- and maybe they already have.
But it's clear to me that this is critical for our efforts at reform. And if public health advocates were able, over time, to transform the fight against tobacco use from a story about individuals choosing to smoke into a discussion about the devastating, large-scale impact of smoking on individuals and communities ... then I think we can do the same for juvenile justice reform. 
What Do You Think?
I'd love to hear your thoughts. I know each of you works hard to keep communities safe and to ensure that youth learn to live crime-free and-drug-free, and many of you have far more experience with this than I do. So let me know -- leave a comment or drop me an email
To all: I wish you the best of luck with your work.

Some General Thank-yous
While in this role, I was fortunate enough to be able to rely on the guidance and trust of the Reclaiming Futures staff, the team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and my boss, Mac Prichard, of Prichard Communications. As a result, I was given the latitude to experiment with launching our Facebook page, our Twitter feed, and our LinkedIn discussion group on juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment -- all of which have become quite popular.
It hasn't been a solo effort. I've had a lot of help and guidance, and I've learned so much from my colleagues, our contributors, and all of the advocates, policymakers, pundits, and professionals in the virtual world madly sharing the best they have to give, all because they believe that young people in trouble with the law can -- with the right mix of sanctions, services, and opportunities for positive development -- be successful contributors to our society. 
Where I'm Going
I'm not leaving juvenile justice. I'll be moving on to manage communications part-time for the National Juvenile Justice Network; and I'll also be site coaching and doing special projects for Reclaiming Futures national program office. If you want to look me up, you'll be able to reach me at benjamin.chambers@reclaimingfutures.org
See you around the neighborhood --

Photo: depinniped, under Creative Commons license.

Updated: February 08 2018