Positive Youth Justice: A Model to Support Youth

April 28, 2014
by Jeffrey A. Butts, PhD, Director, Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

[read at the NCCD website]

logo_nccdblogWe ask youth justice systems to protect the public by preventing and reducing law violations by young people. To accomplish this mission, every component of youth justice should pursue sensible strategies. Policies and practices should be conceptually sound and consistent with what we know about adolescent behavior and the true origins of delinquency.

Unfortunately, this does not happen. Instead, systems adopt policies that are easy to embrace. We are attracted to programs that are politically acceptable and economically appealing to public officials and to the bureaucracies they oversee. The basic question is about theory—why do young people get caught up in the justice system?

American culture is predisposed to see crime as a symptom of mental disorder, so programs that offer mental health supports are readily welcomed. Similarly, substance use is considered aberrant or deviant. Thus, policy makers are always amenable to using justice resources to combat drug use. Most Americans assume that “bad kids” come from “bad families,” which makes family therapy programs an easy sell.

Certainly, all of these problems are important contributors to a young person’s chances of becoming involved in the justice system, but they are not wholly sufficient as a framework for policy and practice. If our goal is to mitigate whatever factors are most likely to draw young people into contact with the justice system, the interventions we provide should reflect what we know about adolescents and the conditions facing young people in the United States today.

We should design solutions for the most pertinent problems, and not for the most popular problems.

We know that the frustration and rage brought on by school failure can lead youth to see crime as a means of gaining self-worth and the respect of peers; but, rather than correct our bad schools we provide remedial programs that stigmatize and punish youth who fail to make it on their own. We know that one of the best ways to keep young people away from crime is to engage them in meaningful and rewarding work, but we fail to intervene when they are systematically excluded from the labor force. We know that the prolonged use of alcohol and other drugs is associated with a criminal lifestyle; but, instead of finding different ways for youth to get the fun and excitement they obviously crave, we coerce them into abstaining from drugs even when they live in a culture that surrounds them with pro-drug messages.

Recently, my colleagues and I worked with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice to devise a different approach. Our Positive Youth Justice (PYJ) model offers youth justice systems a different way to think about youth behavior. The PYJ model is built from the concepts of positive youth development. It blends lessons from the science of adolescent development with practices suggested by positive youth development to provide an effective framework for designing interventions. The model encourages justice systems to focus on protective factors as well as risk factors, strengths as well as problems, positive outcomes as well as negative outcomes, and generally to focus on facilitating successful transitions to adulthood for justice-involved youth.

We designed the PYJ model specifically for justice-involved youth. Positive youth development concepts are obviously compatible with many youth programs, but they have to be narrowly focused in justice settings. The most common approaches to positive youth development presume that young people possess conventional attitudes and a ready willingness to cooperate with pro-social peers and adults. These are not qualities that one finds in abundance among youth involved with the juvenile court and the larger youth justice system. Almost by definition, justice-involved youth have a greater inclination than other youth to violate rules, to disregard convention, and to defy authority.

All youth, including those already involved in the justice system, need supports and opportunities that facilitate their successful transition to adulthood. Even youth who require specialized treatments still need basic developmental supports if they are to avoid future criminality and learn to lead positive, productive adult lives. The PYJ model is designed to help youth justice systems conceptualize and implement such interventions.

Jeffrey A. Butts, PhD, is director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Previously he was a research fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute. Dr. Butts began his career in Oregon, first as a juvenile court drug and alcohol counselor in Eugene and then as a public child welfare caseworker in Portland. He completed a PhD at the University of Michigan and worked on projects at the Institute for Social Research and the Center for the Study of Youth Policy.