The juvenile justice system is biased against historically disadvantaged groups like children of color and foster youth. It’s documented that kids of color are incarcerated at rates well above those of white peers charged with similar offenses. One particularly vulnerable group known as “crossover youth,” has a history involving both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These youth are more than two times as likely to be incarcerated for low-level offenses than their justice-involved peers who are not involved in the child welfare system. For instance, with their first offense, children in the child welfare system are more likely to be placed in restrictive settings, like group homes, than other youth.
The vast majority, between 75 and 93%, of all youth entering the justice system are estimated to have experienced previous trauma. Research has shown that girls in the justice system are 200 to 300 times more likely to have experienced sexual or physical abuse in the past than girls who haven’t been in the system.
Trauma affects kids’ health and can interfere with memory development and emotional regulation, which means children who have experienced trauma are more likely to struggle in school and have behavioral problems such as disruptive or violent outbursts.
Incarceration doesn’t address kids’ underlying trauma. It’s also costly and can be ineffective in deterring future crime; California prisons cost six times as much as high school, and research shows that incarceration may put kids at increased risk for future criminal activity. Even worse, it’s been shown that incarcerated youth are often victimized, resulting in further trauma.
Pro-Kid® Policy Agenda
California should increase its oversight of juvenile justice agencies and incentivize evidence-driven investments. Trauma-responsive justice systems grounded in adolescent development yield better outcomes for youth, reduce racial inequities and increase public safety better than punishment alone.
While California’s juvenile justice system is intended to rehabilitate youth, too often youth are only punished and retraumatized. While the state has some bright spots, like the Positive Youth Justice Initiative, these efforts haven’t been scaled to provide a systematic approach to youth rehabilitation. Still, California has made some legislative progress. Youth benefited from a 2014 law passed by California voters which re-classified certain low-level, nonviolent offenses to misdemeanors and reduced their sentences. The savings from reduced incarceration costs will be invested into drug and mental health treatment, programs for at-risk students and victim services. Additionally, a 2015 state law will raise California’s standard for the quality of juvenile legal representation by ensuring all delinquency attorneys meet certain training or experience requirements. This will ensure that when these vulnerable youth appear in court, they have strong voices advocating for their fair treatment.