Nearly two decades ago, our nation’s juvenile justice system began to slowly shift the way we think about young people. The prevailing punitive and heavily racialized narrative about justice-involved youth that produced the infamous term “super-predator” has gradually given way to a new, more humanistic narrative. While we still have a long way to go, the field now looks at delinquent behavior through a more developmentally informed lens, is more willing to look at the root causes of racial disparities in the system, and understands that many youth arrive at the doorstep of the justice system with a history of significant trauma. Many jurisdictions now actively look for opportunities to divert low-risk youth from court and employ an array of treatment-oriented alternatives to incarceration for youth who need a therapeutic intervention.
Reclaiming Futures is proud to have played a lead role over the past 17 years in sensitizing juvenile justice jurisdictions to the importance of evidence-based and developmentally appropriate responses to substance use and behavioral health concerns, which do not widen the net and pull youth further into the justice system. Along the way, we’ve helped jurisdictions around the country to better engage families and mobilize community supports for youth. In recent years, we amplified our focus on addressing racial and ethnic disparities, in terms of both health and justice outcomes in the jurisdictions where we work. We are also piloting a cutting edge new framework to help juvenile treatment courts address disparities.
Another strategy for weaving treatment together with traditional juvenile court practices has been the juvenile drug treatment court (JDTC). JDTCs began as a pilot program, inspired by the success of adult drug courts, and then quickly grew into a significant presence in the field with nearly 500 JDTCs in juvenile justice jurisdictions across the country. JDTCs have grown exponentially in spite of very mixed research outcomes, a phenomenon which puzzles researchers and policy makers. Recently the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has sought to tackle this challenge and launched a new initiative geared to surfacing the most promising and evidence–supported practice elements from JDTCs across the country. As part of this initiative, OJJDP produced a new set of practice guidelines for JDTCs. The hope is that these new guidelines will lead to greater uniformity across jurisdictions and to closer adherence to practices that research has shown to produce better outcomes for youth. See this current blog post by our own Bridget Murphy for a discussion of the OJJDP Guidelines project and a recent RFP seeking pilot sites for a national evaluation.
At Reclaiming Futures we bring a public health-oriented framework and a set of cutting edge and evidence-based practices to our work with many JDTCs around the country. As a result, we have generated significantly strong outcomes in JDTCs where we’ve worked. The focus of our work and the principles behind the Reclaiming Futures approach closely match the new JDTC guidelines issued by OJJDP, and so we are greatly encouraged about the promise they hold, but we know first-hand what it takes to put principles and guidelines into effective action.