Blog: Juvenile Justice Reform

New York City Teens Get a Second Chance Through Theater

This week, I’m excited to report on an uplifting and innovative program in New York City designed to give justice-involved teens a second chance. The program, Stargate Theatre Company, was recently featured on, so we got in touch with its co-designer, Evan Elkin. Mr. Elkin has extensive experience in juvenile justice and previously served as the director of the Department of Planning and Government Innovation at the Vera Institute of Justice.
On the Stargate Theatre Company, Mr. Elkin writes:

With the rapid advancement of reforms in juvenile justice systems across the United States has come an expanded understanding of what court-involved young people need in order to succeed. Some have described the past decade of juvenile justice reform as a gradual “paradigm shift” away from a largely punitive philosophy to one that places greater emphasis on the innate ability of youth to turn their lives around with the help of their communities and families.
This emerging new sensibility which the researcher Jeffrey Butts has termed “positive youth justice” has challenged long held assumptions about the role of incarceration in changing behavior, about how resiliency and coping with chronic trauma must be considered, how privilege and access to opportunity fit into the picture.
The Stargate Theatre Company is an example of this new paradigm in action through a project I had the privilege of co-designing with NYC’s Manhattan Theatre Club. Stargate is simultaneously a paid job, a work readiness training, a literacy program, a therapeutic experience and, of course, a theatre program for court-involved youth. Stargate begins its second season this summer.

Watch the video from for more on the Stargate Theatre Company: 

Lessons from Abroad: Dutch Juvenile Justice System Shifting to Family-Oriented Approach

For years, the capacity to detain delinquent juveniles – from 12 to 23 years of age – has been expanded in the Netherlands. However, the tide is changing. In 2007, the Netherlands had 16 active Juvenile Justice Detention Institute (JJI) sites for a population of 16 million. Today, there are just 11 JJI sites in operation and this number will drop further in the next few years.

More important than the number of sites are the number of detention slots: this number decreased from 1,300 in 2007 to 800 today. The decline is expected to continue to just 635 in 2017. One reason for this change may be the tendency for crime rates among youth to drop in the past few years. Moreover, juvenile judges increasingly prefer to impose alternative sanctions like community work assignments and referral to mandated treatment programs.

At the same time, Dutch juvenile detention institutes are reinventing themselves. A major group working on this process is Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) Academy, based in Oegstgeest, the Netherlands. At the recent Linking Systemic Practice and Systemic Research conference in Heidelberg, Germany, Henk Rigter and Kees Mos from MDFT Academy outlined the steps taken by JJIs to accept the family of detainees as being important for achieving good detention and treatment outcomes.

The key message for JJI professionals – guards, social workers running groups of detained youth, psychiatrists and psychologists doing assessments and making treatment decisions, and so on – is to work in a family-friendly way, accepting that family involvement helps the youth to change his or her ways. In what eventually will be a national JJI-staff training program, carried out by MDFT Academy in collaboration with the Academic Workplace Forensic Care for Youth, JJI professionals are tought to motivate family members, win their trust, to establish alliances with family members, to inform them regularly, and to invite parents to key JJI meetings where it is decided how their son or daughter is going to be treated. In every step, the parent is acknowledged. Parents are encouraged to join evenings where special themes are being discussed or when their kids prepare meals or sit together to watch movies.

In this panorama of changing interactions between the institute and family members, JJI’s offer the additional advantage of family (systemic) treatment intended to improve the behavior of the youth, family interactions, and work and school prospects for the youth upon release. This treatment is to be continued on an outpatient basis for a few months after release. One such treatment program is Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT). The therapist uses every feasible moment (parents’ visits, furloughs) to hold sessions and increase a youth’s motivation to change. The positive Dutch experience with MDFT matches the outcomes of U.S. trials of MDFT, carried out by the Miami developers of this treatment program (H. Liddle; G. Dakof), as regards to Juvenile Drug Courts and Detention to Community approaches.

OJJDP Releases New Funding Opportunity for Two-Phase Juvenile Reentry Demonstration Program

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is seeking applicants for a newly released funding opportunity: the FY2014 Second Chance Act Two-Phase Juvenile Reentry Demonstration Program: Planning and Implementation.

This two-phase grant program will provide up to $750,000 to help state and local governments, as well as federally recognized Indian tribes, plan and implement programs or strategies that achieve the following:

  • Support the successful reentry of youth released from confinement.
  • Reflect an enhanced emphasis on the adoption, integration, and effective implementation of practices that research has demonstrated improves juvenile reentry outcomes.

Successful applicants will be required to complete two phases of work: a project-planning phase—which must receive OJJDP approval—and a project-implementation phase. The initial award period will be 24 months, with up to six months to complete the planning process.

During the fiscal year, OJJDP may make as many as 15 awards under this program. As opposed to previous fiscal years, applicants will apply for a single award that includes both the planning phase and the implementation phase with specific deliverables required during each.

Mental Health Week: Some Numbers to Remember; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform

Former Justice-Involved Teen Becomes Juvenile Youth Advocate

A moving video on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange tells the story of a former justice-involved teen. Now a youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Xavier McElrath-Bey had been arrested 19 times by the time he was 13 years old. He grew up in an impoverished area in the South Side of Chicago that was known for its violence, crime, and drugs. His stepfather was abusive, his mother suffered from depression and schizophrenia, and his family was unable to afford basic necessities including gas, electricity and even food, and they were often evicted and forced to move.
Over 250,000 youth are being charged as adults every year. Like Xavier, these are children that have the odds stacked against them to begin with. Most of these youth experience trauma, endure physical abuse, and come from backgrounds with poor education and little opportunity for employment. In addition, these children are disproportionately Latinos and African Americans.
Now an advocate to reform the juvenile justice system, Xavier hopes that through sharing his story, he’ll also change people’s perceptions of formerly incarcerated youth and help them understand that these kids have great potential for positive change.

Local Teens Work to Restore History; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform

  • Local Teens Work to Restore History (
    Kids from El Paso gathered to restore the Trinity Community Center as a part of Global Youth Service Day.
  • Efforts Underway to Boost Low Juvenile Expungement Numbers (
    Thousands of young adults in Cook County are missing out on getting a clean start in life by failing to take advantage of the state’s liberal expungement laws for individuals who’ve committed crimes as a juvenile.
  • Report Says Prosecution of Minors as Adults Has Poor Outcomes (The Chicago Bureau)
    An independent advocacy non-profit has concluded that a piece of legislation dating to 1982 and dubbed the “automatic transfer law,” which compels children ages of 15 or 16 charged with certain felony offenses to be charged as an adult, has significantly problematic consequences that go beyond discouraging rehabilitation and positive development of those sentenced.
  • Models for Juvenile Justice Schools (
    When 17-year-old Moriah Barrett first entered Camp Scott, a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles County, Calif., she was already far behind in school credits in completing the 11th grade. Because of her charges, she would be spending the next five months of her life at the all-girls’ facility — finishing high school wasn’t on her mind.
  • The Revolving Door: Wyoming Reliance on Jails for Mental Health Services Comes With Consequences (
    In Wyoming as well as around the country, jails and prisons operate as de facto mental health facilities, treating a disproportionately high number of offenders with mental illnesses, substance abuse issues and often both.

Helping Young People Get Treatment in Juvenile Justice and Beyond

Focal Point magazine, produced by the Pathways Research and Training Center (RTC) at Portland State University, recently published a collaborative article [PDF] between current and former Reclaiming Futures staff and partners examining how the Reclaiming Futures model saves money, reduces recidivism and improves abstinence from drug and alcohol abuse.
The article’s introduction is included below:

Why focus on the juvenile justice system? Despite the fact that most juvenile justice-involved young people are not being treated for substance abuse and mental health needs, the juvenile justice system is still the single largest referral source for adolescent treatment and this system is where young people in trouble often first come to our attention. Young people involved in the juvenile justice system often are challenged with substance use issues.
Nationally, about half of young people in the juvenile justice system have drug related problems. In fact, four of five young people in the juvenile justice system are under the influence of alcohol or drugs while breaking the law; test positive for drugs; are arrested for committing an alcohol or drug offense; admit having substance abuse and addiction problems; or share some combination of these characteristics.
Additionally, many young people in the juvenile justice system have a co-occurring disorder (both substance abuse and mental health). Yet in spite of research that shows treatment helps reduce recidivism and saves money, juvenile courts usually are not set up to detect and treat substance abuse or to provide mental health and other important services.
Instead, most of the young people in the juvenile justice system who need treatment for drugs, alcohol, and mental health problems are not getting it. Fewer than one in twelve young people who need such supports actually receive treatment of any kind. For those who receive treatment, less than half are retained for 90 days as recommended by research. Many communities are not using evidence-based treatments that have been tested in the field for many years.
Young people need different care than adults: care that addresses adolescent development and brain science, and that utilizes support from families and community. Too many juvenile courts mirror a more punitive approach appropriate to adult criminal court rather than the rehabilitative civil court envisioned when the juvenile court was first established in the late nineteeth century.

The good news is that there's already a solution to the issues outlined above: Reclaiming Futures! We know from our evaluations that the Reclaiming Futures model helps teens overcome the cycle of drugs, alcohol and crime by addressing their co-occurring needs. Again from the article, "The Reclaiming Futures JTDC model has potential to increase drug and alcohol abstinence, reduce young people’s illegal activity, and reduce the cost of crime to society." 
Learn more about the Reclaiming Futures model here >>
For the rest of the article, jump to page 18 in the linked PDF for our Reclaiming Futures article, or scroll through the whole magazine for more great articles about co-occurring substance abuse and mental health issues facing teens and young adults.

Juvenile Justice System Not Meeting Educational Needs; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform

Reclaiming Childhood: A Call to Action

As we reported earlier in April, James Bell, founding Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute presented at the Portland State University School of Social Work’s annual Charles Shireman Memorial Lecture on April 17, 2014.
His presentation, “Reclaiming Childhood,” was a call to action for communities to begin looking at child well-being as the preferred child safety strategy. Mr. Bell urged the audience to remember that the ills of humanity are best healed by more humanity. Additional key points made by Mr. Bell include:
Moving Beyond Trauma Informed
There is a need for systems to move beyond trauma informed and become trauma responsive. Many service providers are trauma informed, but becoming trauma responsive would help improve safety, trust and collaboration.
Shifting Service Paradigms
When the risk to public safety is low, a youth’s need for services should not lead to their secure confinement. Focus instead on child wellbeing as a child safety strategy means assessing life outcomes as the measure of success. One strategy to move toward this paradigm shift would be for the juvenile justice system to refuse to accept referrals from schools and/or mental health providers and hold those systems accountable for finding appropriate responses for youth with a low risk to public safety, but a high need for services.
A big thank you to Mr. Bell for all of his great work in juvenile justice reform.

Study Looks at Kids Who Do Time For Offenses That Aren’t Crimes; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform

Join the Conversation in the Reclaiming Futures LinkedIn Group

Did you know that Reclaiming Futures has a LinkedIn group? Becoming a member lets you stay on top of the latest news related to juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment, participate in thought-provoking discussions, and connect with peers and thought leaders in the industry. All you have to do is visit our Juvenile Justice Reform and Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment LinkedIn group and request to join.
Our group will be especially beneficial if you are a:

  • Policy maker or legislator
  • Professional in the field of juvenile justice or adolescent substance abuse treatment
  • Family or youth advocate

Reclaiming Futures Snohomish County Reports on Successes in 2013

Reclaiming Futures Snohomish County recently released its 2013 Annual Report detailing its remarkable accomplishments over the last year. Also known as R-3 (Re-enter, Re-Engage, and Re-Claim), Reclaiming Futures of Snohomish County strives to provide comprehensive services for young people within and outside of the criminal justice system.
In 2013, Snohomish County successfully implemented, or sustained, the following programs to further its mission to meet the needs of young people in the juvenile justice system and at-risk teens:

  • Youth Partner Program: a mentorship program that matches young people with positive adults who share similar interests.
  • Journey: a gender-responsive program that utilizes the One Circle Foundation Curriculum and focuses on relationships with peers, body image, and path to the future.
  • Promising Artists in Recovery (PAIR): a variety of eight-week art workshops for teens in recovery with the goal to exhibit the teens’ work at local venues.
  • The Seven Challenges Program: Snohomish County had its first fidelity visit—a day of training, reviewing of quality assurance documents and observing youth groups at each agency.
  • Music Futures: a performing arts program for teens actively involved in substance abuse treatment who are interested in attending guitar, percussion and song-writing workshops.

Of these programs, PAIR had the most significant results with a 23.3 percent misdemeanor recidivism rate and a 10 percent felony recidivism rate. 

Next Week: James Bell, National Juvenile Justice Leader, to Speak at Portland State University

James Bell, a founding member of the Reclaiming Futures National Advisory Committee in 2001, will be speaking at the Native American Student and Community Center at Portland State University on April 17. See the description below from the event announcement:

The remanding of youth to adult criminal court is a social justice issue of national significance. Mr. James Bell of the Haywood Burns Institute will speak on a campaign soon to be launched in California called "Reclaiming Childhood.” This initiative will stand up against the forces that move youth (and disproportionately youth from low income communities and communities of color) into the adult system. Mr. Bell has worked closely with juvenile justice advocates in Oregon and his comments will be directly relevant to the work being done in our state.

This event is free and open to the community. Light refreshments will be served. To register, visit the PSU website.

The Long-Term Effects of Abuse on Incarcerated Teens; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform Releases New Digital Magazine Featuring Stories of Key Juvenile Justice Issues

Last week the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange launched a new multimedia digital magazine in celebration of its fourth year of journalism. The new magazine will feature top stories in juvenile justice on key issues including mental health, substance abuse and disproportionate minority contact.

This new magazine platform will combine video, text and photography to offer a multimedia picture of juvenile justice and the complex issues surrounding it. The first issue, released last week, includes the following feature stories:

Words Unlocked Continues to Inspire Incarcerated Teens

Last year, we reported about a new poetry initiative designed to introduce young people involved with the juvenile justice system to the therapeutic power of writing, give them hope, and inspire them to persevere in overcoming challenges posed by addiction and crime. Developed by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), Words Unlocked is a month-long poetry curriculum culminating in a nationwide competition open only to incarcerated teens.
We’re excited to see that Words Unlocked is happening again this April, this year with the theme “Boundaries.” Via Words Unlocked:

Boundaries exist in all shapes and forms; boundaries can be physical, social, emotional, or personal. Through Words Unlocked we hope to encourage thousands of students who are locked up to explore this theme and not let the boundaries prescribed by their locked rooms or the razor wire that they see every day limit their creativity, seriousness, or passion for writing and expression.
Far too many young people are locked up around the country. Through this initiative, we intend to ensure that their words are not.

Report Finds Family Visits Improve Behavior and School Performance of Incarcerated Teens

A report from the Vera Institute of Justice, Ohio Department of Youth Services and the Public Welfare Foundation underscores the importance of family involvement for incarcerated youth. The Families as Partners: Supporting Youth Reentry Project’s findings reveal the positive correlation between family visitation and behavior and school performance, and suggest juvenile correctional facilities should change their visitation policies to promote more frequent visitation with families.
In the study, teens who were never visited earned the lowest GPA scores and had three times as many behavior incidents as those who saw their families at least once a week. Conversely, youth who had regular family visits experienced the lowest levels of behavioral incidents and earned the highest GPAs.
Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Youth who were visited regularly committed an average of four behavioral incidents per month, compared to six among those visited infrequently and 14 among those who were never visited.
  • Youth who had never received a visit exhibited the highest rates of behavioral incidents.
  • Average GPAs for youth who never had a visitor was 80.4, compared to 82 for those who had visits infrequently and 85 for youth who had frequent visits.

Find the full report from the Families as Partners: Supporting Youth Reentry Project.

Upcoming Webinar on Building Relationships with Policymakers to Help your Community

Mark your calendars! This Wednesday, March 19, at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is hosting, “Show Policymakers How Your Court Helps Your Community: Five Steps for Building Relationships that Last.”
This webinar will provide insight on how building relationships with policymakers can help your community, including by raising public attention for your issue, building new community support, or even increasing funding. It can take time to establish the strong relationships necessary to reach these results.
Guest speakers Mac Prichard and Jessica Williams of Prichard Communications will share lessons learned and tips from their experiences helping juvenile courts and nonprofits in Washington, DC, and across the country, focusing on three learning objectives:

  • Understand the benefits of building relationships with policy makers.
  • Share strategic principles for working with elected officials in your
  • community.
  • Review case studies of juvenile courts in Dayton, Ohio, and Seattle.

To register for Wednesday’s webinar, email Jessica Pearce at jpearce [at] ncjfcj [dot] org.

How About a Caring Adult for Every Teen?

Community leaders in Snohomish County, Washington, are helping teens overcome drugs, alcohol, mental health issues and crime.
They have a lofty goal: To have a caring adult help every teen.
The Herald of Everett, Washington, recently highlighted mentors who spoke out on behalf of young people involved in the juvenile justice system: 

"They're not bad kids. A detour has taken them off the road to success," Litzkow says, repeating a mantra favored by Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss. Weiss presides over the juvenile drug court at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center. He also is a champion for the county's Reclaiming Futures project. The pilot program was launched in 2010 in the county's juvenile court system. It's modeled after a national initiative aimed at providing effective treatment for drug- and alcohol-addicted teens, and caring for their needs once they're out of the criminal justice system. A large part of that initiative is connecting kids with positive role models.

Deena Eckroth, 49, believes young people need support regardless of some of the bad decisions that they may make. "They've had enough people abandon them," Eckroth said. The Mukilteo mother of two grown children recently was paired up with a 15-year-old girl. Eckroth said she was compelled to volunteer with at-risk youth in part because of her experience as a human resources manager. She has had to turn people away for jobs because of their past mistakes. "It made me wonder what happened in their life and what could have helped that person turn around," she said. "This really makes sense for me." Eckroth now is recruiting co-workers and others to become mentors.

This effort builds on the success of the Promising Artists in Recovery program that is still going strong in Snohomish County. 

Crime and Punishment with Psychologist Evan Elkin

Comedian Jake Johannsen recently got serious (well, a little more serious than usual) with psychologist Evan Elkin during his Jakethis podcast. The two sat down and talked about the juvenile justice system, and problems with how we handle crime and punishment. The podcast is embedded below for your listening pleasure. Jump to the 18 minute mark for the discussion of the juvenile justice system.