Driving Improved Outcomes for the Juvenile Justice System

It was a great pleasure to attend the Coalition of Juvenile Justice’s annual conference in Washington D.C. last week. Under the title, “Redefining leadership: engaging youth, communities and policy makers to achieve better juvenile justice outcomes”, the conference convened a broad coalition of policy makers, practitioners, advocates, researchers and, importantly young people themselves.

Improving outcomes for our young people was a good theme for the conference. And it comes at a time when juvenile justice is undergoing substantial reform in states across the U.S. This includes my home state of Georgia which is considered to be in the vanguard of reforming states.

The motivation for reform appears to be driven by a humanitarian desire to end the use of custody for young people and improve conditions in jail.  It is also clear that the reform agenda is driven by fiscal realities and the need to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. The Department of Juvenile Justice in Georgia estimates that it costs upwards of $90,000 a year to house just one juvenile offender in one of its facilities.

Humanitarian and costs concerns are legitimate concerns in public policy, not least how we treat our vulnerable young people. However, we must guard against unfounded good intentions and the danger of delivering cut-price justice. Good juvenile justice outcomes should be about increasing protective factors, ending the “school to prison pipeline”, improving relations with the police and education authorities and – of course – reducing recidivism.  So it was heartening that the conference was committed to improving outcomes for the juvenile offenders, their families and communities as well as the wider juvenile justice system.

The key to achieving good outcomes lies in understanding the data, and I attend several seminars on data-driven decision making, with presenters demonstrating the use of data to model how their juvenile justice system was reformed to achieve improved outcomes. It was also good to learn more about current evidence based interventions that are successful in addressing the underlying factors related to offending behaviour. My own contribution was to present a poster on how evaluation provides empirical evidence of how and why an intervention has achieved its outcomes and what can be done to improve them.

Juvenile justice reform should be led by an empirical analysis of the data: what is effective and cost beneficial. Evaluation has a key role in this and as the current reforms are rolled out they should be evaluated and scrutinized to determine whether they were successful, how they could be improved – or even whether a particular reform should be reversed or altered.

If you would like to learn more about how evaluation can help you with your local reforms, please contact me at alan.mackie@getthedata.co.uk