Christine M. Cole, Executive Director

Recent trends paint a disturbing picture of a youth justice system that continues to face challenges and disparately impacts young people of color and young people in under-served communities. The number of young people detained was trending downward prior to the pandemic, though that seems to be changing. While it’s unclear if these changes were caused by the pandemic — more vigorous data collection and analysis will be necessary to understand the pandemic’s true impact and long-term effects — we know that challenges persist that existed prior to COVID-19.

CJI’s experience shows that many states face similar challenges related to youth justice:
  • High proportions of young people committed to out-of-home placement for low-level offenses
  • Limited and inconsistent access to evidence-based community services
  • Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities at each stage of the system

Racial disparities in the youth justice system result in the increased likelihood of Black youth being in custody compared to white youth in every state except Hawaii. In Pennsylvania, for example, Black non-Hispanic youth make up 14% of the overall youth population, yet represent 47% of youth sent to out-of-home placements and 62% of youth charged as adults. Additionally, Native American/Tribal youth were more than three times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as white young people.

These experiences have long-lasting negative impacts on young people related to education and employment access, familial connections, and the stability of the communities where young people live. The challenges are all solvable if states commit to evidence-based policy solutions with the goal of improving outcomes.

CJI is one of the few organizations in the country that provides technical assistance in both policy development and implementation to support states’ efforts in youth justice reform. Our technical assistance focuses on evidence- and research-based practices, which in youth justice means using the least restrictive option and keeping young people in their communities, schools, and with their families.

In Kentucky, CJI helped highlight the need to collect and regularly review data to understand the existence and extent of racial disparities at different decision points within the youth justice system. CJI revealed those disparities through comprehensive data analysis and Kentucky then used that information to update policies and practices (read more in the spotlight section below).

With the support of CJI’s youth justice experts, Kansas reduced the number of young people in detention. State leaders increased their use of community-based programs as an alternative to incarceration, dramatically improving outcomes and shifting resources toward evidence-based alternatives where young people can be supervised safely and effectively at home.

Most recently, CJI and The Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project supported a juvenile justice task force in Pennsylvania. If enacted by the legislature, the task force recommendations will measurably improve Pennsylvania’s youth justice system. We’re excited that Pennsylvania is poised to make big legislative strides and that stakeholders are rolling up their sleeves to do the necessary work, focused on limiting out-of-home placement, increasing diversion opportunities, reallocating funding to community programs, and creating much-needed oversight. The CJI youth justice team is also wrapping up implementation technical assistance for youth justice system reforms funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Delaware, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Tennessee.

It is imperative that we continue to look for ways to help young people thrive in communities while relying less on the youth justice system. Especially when the data clearly show that, far too often, young people of color are more likely to end up in the system. The stakes are too high for all kids not to use our collective expertise, data, and research urgently to advance progress in the youth justice system.
  • Virtual Crisis Care is a mobile crisis response model utilizing telehealth technology. CJI has provided planning and facilitation between law enforcement and behavioral health professionals, consultation, and implementation assistance since the program's inception and will continue to offer this support as it expands to more states.

  • CJI released Missing the Full Picture, a report exploring how the use of charge-based exclusions can lead to worse outcomes in pretrial systems.

  • Throughout the U.S., governors, courts, corrections systems, and law enforcement agencies continue to implement new policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. CJI continues to track responses.
CJI worked with Kentucky from 2013 to 2019 to support the development and implementation of data- and evidence-driven youth justice system reforms. Through its initial data analysis, CJI exposed racial disparities at different decision points within the system and Kentucky stakeholders then used this information to make policy and practice changes that address the challenges.

The initial results were strong. Kentucky achieved a 40% reduction in the out-of-home youth population from 2014 to 2017 by reducing out-of-home placements for young people who were processed for misdemeanors and probation violations. In addition, an increasing proportion of youth were diverted from formal case processing. However, data showed that racial disparities persisted. Analysis of Kentucky’s reforms showed that white youth disproportionately benefited from the state’s policy changes more than Black youth. Since the 2014 reforms, the number of white youth placed in custody decreased 45% while the number of Black youth placed in custody decreased by only 25%. The data further showed that white youth were more likely to receive a diversion agreement than Black youth.

Kentucky stakeholders, concerned that their system wasn’t equitable and fair for every young person, dug deep into the data to understand what was driving persistent racial disparities. They then connected with local jurisdictions to better understand their process and policy change needs, and developed customized, targeted approaches to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. Since taking those actions, there has been a 39% reduction in Black youth being detained at the initial point of intake and a 35% decrease in petitions filed against Black youth. These are strides to be proud of, but stakeholders in Kentucky know the work doesn’t stop there. The Kentucky Court of Justice developed a guide to institutionalize the focus on racial disparities, and continues to strive for equal and fair justice for all young people.

Want to read more about CJI’s youth justice work in other states? Learn how Utah significantly reduced its reliance on locked detention and how South Dakota dramatically reduced its youth commitments to custody. 
Thanks to our many partners and funders who help us make this work happen, including Arnold Ventures, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), National Institute of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Pew Charitable Trusts, and several state, regional, and local jurisdictions.