October is National Youth Justice Awareness month. It’s a time to look at what works in the youth justice system and what doesn’t.
In recent years, a number of states have decided that long-term incarceration does not stop youth from offending; as a result, we have seen a movement toward deinstitutionalization and reform across the country.
Many of our efforts at reform have focused on the youth themselves: What works best for them? How do we minimize their contact with the system? When they are in the system, what interventions can we use with them? Yet, we are often silent about how those reforms are actually implemented, and by whom.
Youth justice reforms get implemented by real people who spend many hours of their day working with young people in the system. It's a system designed for youth, but constructed and managed by adults. It’s time to start looking at those adults.
I spent over a year interviewing frontline staff and administrators in New York’s juvenile justice system with the support of a Soros Justice Fellowship. While so many of us have committed our lives to reforming the juvenile and criminal justice systems, these individuals spend the most time with young people in the system, outside of their families and loved ones. As one staff member told me, “We are the mothers and fathers of these children.”
In our push to reform these systems, we have often painted these individuals with a broad brush—they are disgruntled, abusive workers; they are conservative union members, resistant to reform; they are racist and reluctant to change. What I found in New York is that the workers in juvenile facilities are much more than that—they are human beings who got caught up in our feverish rush during the 1980s and 1990s to discard youth of color from our nation’s cities into rural communities.
They are overwhelmingly people of color themselves, who in the face of limited employment opportunities in urban areas sought out state jobs in places where they could buy a house and have a pension. They are white rural residents who feel they have a different purpose in life from their uncles, brothers, and aunts who work at nearby adult prisons—to help young people escape a life of crime.
For all of the staff, this job offered a solid base on which to survive: according to one staff member, “Where [else] do you find this employment and pay in a rural area?” And they all work in a system in which their jobs are not secure.
They are tasked with implementing a constantly changing array of reforms, they receive little ongoing supervision in which they can make sense of their relationship to the young people, and they are often demonized in the public media by the very people who employ them. One staff member stated, “It’s so demoralizing to be us right now.”
Yet in the end, these individuals—often the aunts, cousins, and uncles of the youth in care—must cope with these pressures during their shifts, as they work directly with young people. Our neglect to recognize the key role they play in the landscape of youth justice has negative long-term consequences. Reforms must address the well-being of everyone who walks through the juvenile justice system.
At least two pertinent reforms must take place. First, staff members in juvenile justice contexts must be included in the reform process. As one union representative put it, “There was never an effort made to include the people who deal directly with the kids and talk about how it could be done better…and that undermines the implementation.”
Second, New York and other states must be willing to recognize that juvenile justice deinstitutionalization and reforms must go hand in hand with investments in secure and well-paid work for all individuals whose lives have been affected by the decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise in insecure employment—and that includes youth and staff.