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Uncovering the Continuum of Care for Youth Charged as Adults

Posted in 2019 Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Uncovering the Continuum of Care for Youth Charged as Adults

By Marcy Mistrett, CFYJ CEO

In the 1990s, 250,000 youth per year were charged as adults, with tens of thousands of those young people essentially being “raised” by the adult criminal justice system. These huge numbers—the beginning of the current era of mass incarceration—resulted from the “get tough” approach adopted by most states and the federal government in response to a spike in violent crime in the early 1990’s. Without the protections afforded by the juvenile justice system, these youth experienced the worst of the adult criminal system and its “tough on crime” policies: mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing laws, extreme sentences, collateral consequences, long periods of solitary confinement, and increased exposure to violence and assaults.

Almost thirty years later, we are just beginning to address the error of our ways, at least for some of our children. In the past decade, 37 states and DC have passed over 75 laws to keep more youth in the juvenile justice system rather than sending them to the adult system.  When youth are placed in the adult criminal justice system, they lose access to the age-appropriate services offered by juvenile justice systems and are at greater risk of physical and psychological harm, making it more difficult for them to become healthy and productive community members as adults.  Furthermore, we know that public safety and community health are jeopardized when we treat children as if they were adults. In order to support the positive legislative trends towards keeping more youth in the juvenile system, the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) has been undertaking a year-long effort to determine what currently happens to youth charged as adults, and what a continuum of services that would truly support these young people and their communities would look like. The first wave of reforms that have been implemented, those that raise the age of criminal responsibility, remove youth from adult jails, raise the lower ages of youth eligible for transfer, and return discretion to juvenile court judges, have primarily removed younger children and youth with low level or non-violent charges out of automatic prosecution in the adult system.  As we continue the next chapter of reforms, we need solutions that can address the needs of the children who remain in the adult system—many of whom are older, have more complicated needs, and will be more likely to be involved with violence. In addition, given the growing disparities in transfer and sentencing on youth of color, it will be critical to identify policies and programs that address the racial biases that exist. For these reasons, we are focusing this project on identifying a continuum that can meet the needs of this population.

We know this work is complicated; it crosses multiple systems that often don’t share information or common goals. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how invisible many of these children are.  To address these challenges, over the past six months, we have reached out to hundreds of stakeholders across the country, conducted dozens of interviews with community-based providers, state agency staff, and researchers, and have reviewed relevant research, recommendations, and program profiles. In collaboration with our partners at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing for Youth, in November we held a focus group with individuals who were charged as adults for offenses committed when they were youth. We will also be looking at data on sentencing and other outcomes for youth charged as adults with crimes involving violence in partnership with the Justice Policy Institute. Although we are still conducting more interviews and gathering and analyzing additional information, several things are already clear:

-Once youth are transferred out of the juvenile justice system into the criminal justice system, there is little to no oversight to ensure that they are receiving age-appropriate services (e.g., education, mental health, independent living skills).

-The “gold standard” evidence-based practices that are widely used in the juvenile justice community can be used just as successfully with youth who are often transferred to the adult system (16- and 17-year olds and youth with felony charges).  In fact, many were designed specifically with this population in mind.

-There are already many community-based programs successfully working with older youth and youth charged with felonies and who are involved with violence --although these opportunities are available to only a tiny fraction of youth who could benefit from them.

-Programs serving youth report that they are equally willing to serve youth who are part of the juvenile or adult systems.

-In states and DC where reforms have already returned children back under juvenile jurisdiction and/or custody, juvenile justice administrators largely support youth being under their care and custody.

We will be publishing several new resources over the next year, highlighting state policy changes that could address the issues above, and promising local practices and programming that could be replicated as part of a comprehensive continuum of care. Specifically, we will share examples of felony diversion and community-based programming for youth charged with serious offenses including those involving violence, which may be offered by culturally competent community-based providers through the support of juvenile justice systems who seek to avoid unnecessary incarceration. We will also share examples of how states could respond to the small number of youth who may need residential care in non-secure facilities (e.g., therapeutic foster care) and those who may need limited time in secure settings. These resources will include recommendations for legislators, justice system professionals, and others, and will include insights and quotes from leaders who have improved their own systems on why these changes are so important, and how to do this well. We look forward to sharing this information with you, and to working together to ensure that youth misbehaviors are responded to in age-appropriate ways that best serve youth themselves, and their families and communities.

To learn more about this work, or to suggest promising approaches that we could highlight, please e-mail Marcy Mistrett at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.