Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

November 25, 2013

by Shay Bilchik, Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy

We have learned a tremendous amount in the last decade about how to best serve youth in the juvenile justice system. Through advances in research, we now understand more about how and where to treat juvenile offenders. For example, research shows that low and moderate risk youth are best served in the community in non-residential placements that offer better youth outcomes at lower costs. Application of this knowledge has led to a significant reduction in the population of youth placed in juvenile residential facilities across the country, an advance in policy and practice that has received significant attention and is being widely celebrated as a strategy that will lead to reductions in recidivism.

There is a concern, however, that this attention might distract us from also focusing on how to best meet the needs of those youth who are at high risk of recidivating and require residential placements. The fear is that this group of youth will be considered unable to succeed in treatment, leading to reduced expectations about their rehabilitation and care. The fact is that even the highest risk youth can benefit from treatment if we apply to their rehabilitation our enhanced knowledge about what works. The facilities in which they are placed should be safe and operate according to best practices. These practices should include a strong assessment system, the use of treatment-oriented approaches including trauma-informed care and cognitive-behavioral therapy, the engagement of families, and the involvement of other children’s service agencies while the youth are in care and reentering the community.

In response to this concern, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at the Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Division of Youth Services, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Center for Youth in Custody co-founded the Youth in Custody Certificate Program. The program is an intensive learning opportunity at Georgetown University for juvenile justice leaders and their partners. It consists of a curriculum composed of instruction modules in areas such as culture change and leadership; assessment; treatment, services, and reentry; and family and youth engagement. Specifically, it shines a brighter light on the high-risk, high-needs juvenile offender population, and helps leaders to develop capacity, effectuate change, and sustain and accelerate system improvements to improve outcomes for youth in custody.

Conducted for the first time in August of 2013, the Youth in Custody Certificate Program brought together more than 35 participants, including teams and individuals from California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Texas. The program offered the best of both policy and practice—providing participants with research-based instruction on best practices from field experts as well as the pragmatic steps needed to lead change.

Program participants describe their experiences:

“Our Sacramento team had the privilege of participating in the Summer 2013 Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform Youth in Custody Certificate Program. Together, we have over 45 years of combined experience and training, and we each agreed that in all of our work serving youth in custody, the Georgetown program exceeded any training we had ever experienced. Because our team was comprised of both youth detention facility members and youth education members, the Georgetown program gave us the unique opportunity to utilize the time to create a concrete vision for our projects and how best our county might serve our youth. Our work in Sacramento on behalf of youth has been made stronger by the Georgetown program in that we are able to call on our networks, connections, and learning gained during this time.”

—Michael Shores, Assistant Chief Probation Officer, Sacramento County Probation Department
—Ruby Jones, Supervising Probation Officer, Sacramento County Probation Department and Youth Detention Facility Programming Supervisor
—Marc Nigel, Director of Court School, Alternative Education, and Business Development for At-risk Youth in the Sacramento County Office of Education

“It was great being part of the Youth in Custody Certificate Program. The Delaware team was able to interact with so many other jurisdictions and share our thoughts and get input from other professionals. The instructors were extremely knowledgeable about the issues, insightful and always willing to help. Additionally, it was a great experience for our team to spend quality time together without having to worry about other issues.”

—Thomas Spell, Superintendent of the State of Delaware

Participants will now advance the work in their communities by developing capstone projects to initiate or continue collaborative efforts related to improving outcomes for youth in the custody of the juvenile justice system. After the capstone project is approved by Georgetown University, participants will receive an Executive Certificate from the university and become part of the CJJR Fellows Network, a national network of over 300 fellows who have completed one or more of CJJR’s certificate programs. The fellows are offered technical assistance from instructors to help implement their projects.

CJJR and its partners plan to host a second Youth in Custody Certificate Program in 2014. The hope is, that over time, the program will provide juvenile justice leaders with the knowledge, skills, and support to promote reforms designed to improve outcomes for the highest risk youth in the custody of the juvenile justice system.

For more information on the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, click here.

For more information on the Inaugural Youth in Custody Program, click here. To sign up to receive information about the 2014 program, click here.

Shay Bilchik is the founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. The center advances a balanced, multi-systems approach to reducing juvenile delinquency and promote positive child and youth development. 

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