New John Jay College Report Looks at Juvenile Justice Reforms

The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice recently released a comprehensive report that discusses state juvenile justice reforms. “Pioneers of Youth Justice Reform: Achieving System Change Using Resolution, Reinvestment and Realignment Strategies” explores various reform initiatives that have reduced each state’s reliance on confinement facilities for youth.
The Problem
Imprisonment is a costly punishment for adults and juveniles, both monetarily and in terms of its impact on recidivism. Incarceration currently is a multi-billion dollar industry and typically accounts for a majority of state criminal justice budget expenditures. Given the current economic recession, the need for state officials to explore mechanisms for reducing expenses is greater than ever. Equally as important, incarceration is associated with an increased likelihood of reoffending. Statistics indicate that two-thirds of inmates will be arrested within three years of their release from prison. The destructive consequences of incarceration have led some states to look into alternatives to incarceration, especially for court-involved youth.
Reform Strategies

Political shifts between incarceration and community-based alternatives for non-violent and low-risk offenders date back many years. The evolution of these shifts in the juvenile justice system can be traced back to California’s Probation Subsidy Act of 1965. California offered financial incentives to counties that supervised offenders in their homes or communities instead of sending them to secure state facilities. Both the state and counties benefited: California saved millions and counties received a portion of the savings to strengthen local probation and reentry services. Pennsylvania implemented a similar policy for youth in the 1970s, Wisconsin in the 1980s, and Ohio is the 1990s. The creation of financial incentives that encourage state and county governments to reduce spending on incarceration and increase the funding of community-based alternatives is known as reinvestment.
Other state and local governments have pursued different mechanisms for shifting from incarceration to community-based alternatives for youth offenders. In the early 1970s, perceiving meaningful reform as impossible, Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) Commissioner Jerome Miller shut down all juvenile facilities in the DYS. When assessments indicated that his closures did not compromise public safety, other states followed Miller’s lead. The use of managerial power to influence change is referred to as resolution.
The most enduring method of juvenile justice reform is realignment. Realignment is a shift in administrative responsibility from the state to county-level. It is based on the notion that local communities are in the best position to provide juvenile offenders with extensive and cost-effective supervision and treatment services. Wayne County, Michigan has operated a successfully realigned juvenile justice system since 2000. Texas has partially realigned its juvenile justice system such that counties are responsible for all misdemeanor offenders; they can still send a limited number of felony youth to state facilities. California realigned its youth justice system in 2007 when Governor Schwarzenegger passed Senate Bill 81, but Governor Brown recently backed away from a proposal to completely shut down the Division of Juvenile Justice by 2013. New York also is considering a realignment proposal in addition to financial incentives for reducing youth confinement (reinvestment) and Governor Cuomo’s closing of more than 20 state youth confinement facilities (resolution).
Impact of Reforms
The most discernible effect of resolution, reinvestment, and realignment is reductions in youth confinement, which inevitably saves states and counties millions. More importantly, it enables state and local governments to develop and provide supervision and treatment services to at-risk youth in their own communities or homes. Such programs demonstrate more promising outcomes than incarceration at a fraction of their cost.
Crime has been declining for more than a decade, which has facilitated the enactment of the aforementioned reforms. The crucial question for policymakers is: what will become of these reforms when crime increases, state budgets rebound, or political change occurs? Resolution may compel state and local governments to find short-term placements, but states can build new facilities over time. Likewise, reinvestment strategies are rescindable. If juvenile crime or budgetary resources increase, what would stop policymakers from scaling back reinvestment initiatives and shifting toward confinement? Realignment, however, is the most resistant to policy change and fluctuations in crime rates because it requires local governments to build their own localized systems. It is difficult to restore a centralized state agency that has been eliminated and replaced with smaller agencies managed at the local level. While it is too soon to determine its long-term effectiveness, realignment may be the optimal method for states to manage and fund juvenile justice.  

Douglas N. Evans is a research analyst with the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He oversees research on youth justice initiatives, including the effects of policies and programs that divert resources from state institutions to community-based providers. He will earn the Ph.D. in criminal justice from Indiana University-Bloomington in 2012 and in September 2012, he will join the faculty at Mercy College of New York.

Updated: February 08 2018