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Keeping Youth Out of the Juvenile Justice System: Creating Policy and System Change

By Lauren Gase, Spark Policy Institute and Taylor Schooley, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Each year, roughly one million young people are arrested in the United States. Contact with the justice system is not only a public safety issue – research shows that it can lead to a range of negative health and social outcomes, including damaging family functioning, decreasing high school graduation and employment rates, increasing the risk for involvement in violence, and worsening mental health outcomes.

Contact with the justice system is also an equity issue; persons of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of justice system processing. It should concern anyone interested in promoting health, educational achievement, and community and economic development.

The public health sector can be a strong leader in creating justice systems transformation because it has experience bringing together diverse stakeholders to facilitate meaningful dialogue and collaborative decision-making. Public health focuses on prevention, holistic wellbeing, and the root causes of poor outcomes. It is grounded in using data to drive decision-making to identify opportunities for improvement.

To illustrate this, we’ve gathered examples of several jurisdictions that have begun to advance promising solutions to justice reform in partnership with public health:

  • In Los Angeles County, California, the Board of Supervisors established a new division of Youth Diversion & Development within the integrated Health Agency. This division is tasked with coordinating and contracting community-based services in lieu of arrest or citation for youth countywide.
  • In King County, Washington, Executive Dow Constantine announced an executive order to place juvenile justice under the purview of the public health department. The order aims to change policies and system to “keep youth from returning to detention, or prevent them from becoming involved in the justice system in the first place.”
  • A recent analysis from Human Impact Partners examines the impacts of youth arrest on health and well-being in Michigan and identifies a number of recommendations, including diverting youth pre-arrest, training agency personnel to be trauma-informed, sealing youth records, and changing state sentencing laws.

To promote health, safety, and racial equity, we need to transform our current justice system to create the social, economic, and political conditions that allow individuals, families, and communities to thrive. Some jurisdictions have begun to advance public health solutions to justice reform, but there is more to be done. We need to think differently about the role of multiple partners – including law enforcement, courts, health, schools, social services, and community-based organizations – in creating opportunities for young people to avoid or minimize formal processing in the justice system.