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Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice - Summary, Justice for Families, 2012

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Families Unlocking Futures:
Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice

A report by

Justice for Families with research
September 2012

support by



1. School

In more and more public schools, police
patrol the hallways and ‘zero tolerance’ policies are
increasingly pushing students out, suspending or expelling youth for normal adolescent misbehavior rather than
attempting to retain students with alternative support.
Families are often given inadequate notice or opportunity
to participate in school disciplinary hearings.

2. Arrest

Aggressive police tactics including ‘stopand-frisk’ drive the growing number of youth of color
arrested for ‘quality of life’ crimes and other misconduct.
After an arrest is made, children are often prevented from
speaking with their family before questioning, not informed
of their rights and subject to questionable police practice.

3. Detention

Children are often unnecessarily detained in youth detention centers while they are awaiting
trial. Detention of a child has been shown to have profound
and lasting negative impacts. Families neither receive
information regarding the harms associated with detention
nor accommodations that make it easier to collect their
child from the detention center after an arrest has been

5. Probation

Too often, families seeking support are
instead directed to probation, resulting in greater juvenile
justice system involvement. If youth do not comply with
probation requirements, they often end up in a confined
facility for even the most minor infractions.

4. Adjudication/ Trial

Youth and families often
wait long periods of time for short, confusing court appearances where they are not oriented to what is happening nor
given an opportunity to speak.

6. Placement

When children are found to have
committed a delinquent act, authorities often place them
in facilities that are hours away from home and difficult or
impossible to reach by public transportation. Families face
severe restrictions on who, when and for how long they can
visit and exorbitant phone call costs. Generally, the costs
associated with a young person’s involvement in the justice
system weigh heavily on families of modest means.

7. Re-Entry/ Parole

Youth are often released
without significant notice to families, or the documentation and other preparation needed to return to school,
work, and home. Youth face significant barriers to getting
back into school and securing housing and employment.
They often face parole supervision that can result in their
re-arrest and confinement for parole violations.

*A Walk Through the Juvenile Justice System is a visualization of
the experience of the current juvenile justice system process as
described by Focus Group and Survey Participants. At each stage,
low-income youth, youth of color, and especially low-income youth
of color are disproportionately negatively impacted.

About the Authors

Justice for Families (J4F) is a national alliance of local organizations working to transform families from victims of the prison epidemic to leaders of
the movement for fairness and opportunity for all youth. We are founded
and run by parents and families who have experienced “the system”
directly with their own children (often the survivors of crime themselves),
and who are taking the lead to help build a family-driven and traumainformed youth justice system.

DataCenter is an independent research organization for social justice
movements and grassroots organizing. Rooted in progressive social movements and grounded in values of justice and self-determination for communities, DataCenter believes in advancing the concept and strategy of
Research Justice—a theory and practice for social change that validates
all forms of knowledge, and puts information in the hands of communities organizing for justice. Communities are experts on the problems and
solutions affecting their lives. DataCenter helps surface that knowledge in
ways that develop leadership, increase community power, and generate
momentum for social change.

Justice for Families is a national alliance of membership-based organizations and allies including: Books Not Bars; Center for Community
Alternatives; Citizens for Second Chances; Community Connections for
Youth; Community Rights Campaign; Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth;
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children; Families
Organized for Reform of Juvenile Justice; Renewed Minds; Spirit House;
Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth; and Youth Justice Coalition. This
report reflects the work of all of these organizations.

Top Cover
Photo Courtesy of
Spirit House/ Erin
Bottom Cover
Photo Courtesy of
Richard Ross


Youth in Detention
Photo Courtesy of
Richard Ross



The parents and families of court-involved and
incarcerated youth love their children and are
hardworking individuals with deep ties to, and
concern for, their communities. Yet, more often
than not, “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and
uninformed stereotypes about youth and their
families have governed the policies of juvenile
justice systems. In writing this report, families
are challenging those misperceptions.
The research for, and writing of, this report was
conducted by Justice for Families (J4F), a national
alliance of local organizations working to transform
families from victims of the prison epidemic to
leaders of the movement for fairness and opportunity for all youth. We are founded and run by parents
and families who have experienced “the system”
directly with our own children, and who are taking
the lead in helping build a family-driven/traumainformed youth justice system.
Justice for Families and its research partner, the
DataCenter, surveyed more than 1,000 parents
and family members from 20 cities spread across
9 states; conducted 24 focus groups of 152 youth,
parents, and family members from 12 cities across
9 states; closely reviewed nearly 300 articles from
11 metropolitan areas that discussed families of
court-involved youth; and completed a literature
review of government and community alternatives
to “zero-tolerance” school discipline procedures
and traditional juvenile justice system court
processing and adjudications.
In focus groups and surveys, families described how
the rapid growth of the prison system, zero-tolerance policies, and aggressive police tactics coupled
with the decline of social services and public education have wreaked havoc on their predominantly
low-income communities of color. In this context,
rather than being a deterrent, the juvenile justice

system has functioned as a principal feeder into
our nation’s vast prison system.
Low-income children and children of color face
crumbling and closing schools, zero-tolerance rules,
and regulations that turn adolescent mistakes into
“repeat offenses.” Their families face extreme financial vulnerability. While they struggle to meet basic
needs, they find it increasingly difficult to access
and afford positive recreational and educational
opportunities for their children. If they have the misfortune of encountering the juvenile justice system,
they’ll face exclusionary policies that: (1) create
and deepen economic instability; (2) discriminate
against families that deviate from the nuclear family
norm; and (3) reinforce the incorrect assumption
that their families are apathetic or worse, that they
are part of the problem.
Meanwhile, a vast research base shows that: (1)
locking children up in adult and adult-like prisons
and jails puts them at grave risk, increases their
chances of being violently abused and locked up
again, and ultimately decreases the safety of communities; and (2) families are crucial to the success
of system-involved youth and family-centered youth
programs work. Yet these solutions and the harm
to youth and families are too often ignored because
either families do not have a seat at the table, or are
assumed to be the problem.
The work of this report and the work of Justice for
Families is designed to set the record straight: to
correct misperceptions about system-involved
youth and their families; to demonstrate the depth
of engagement by system-involved youth and their
families; and to assert the critical need for these
famillies’ active participation and leadership in redesigning the youth justice system in order to secure
safer and more prosperous communities.

All children need to be nurtured and supported into adulthood:
it is an investment in their future and in the security of our communities. Yet, juvenile justice systems in the United States set
up far too many youth for failure. School resources increasingly
go towards enforcing zero-tolerance policies that push youth out
of schools. Meanwhile, despite the fact that incidents of more
serious crimes remain near record lows, youth arrests for minor
misbehavior have risen dramatically over the last two decades
outside of school. Once youth are inside the system, the lion’s
share of resources is allocated toward locking them up. Nearly
50,000 children are separated from their families each night in
what are little more than youth prisons. Most of the money spent
on youth who become involved in the justice system funds correctional confinement. In 2007, states spent approximately $5.7
billion locking up 64,558 youth at an average cost of $240.99 per
day, or around $88,000 a year for each youth incarcerated in a
juvenile facility. The “community component” of youth justice
is dominated by probation, which in most jurisdictions primarily
includes risk management and surveillance. Funding for counseling and positive skill development is notoriously scarce.
At every stage of the juvenile justice system—from schools, to
arrest, to courts, to probation, to youth imprisonment—youth of
color face unconscious bias on the part of the professionals in
these systems. This unconscious bias, coupled with structural
inequity, drive disproportionate numbers of youth of color into
the system.
Research in both the United States and abroad confirms that the
more deeply involved a young person gets with the juvenile justice
system, the more likely he or she is to get arrested as an adult.
Rather than helping young people stay in school, or develop skills
and other building blocks for a successful life, juvenile justice
systems are tracking youth toward adult prison.
At every stage of the juvenile justice system, when critical decisions are being made about how a young person is treated, families are outright excluded, disregarded, or not provided the information and tools necessary to actively participate in proceedings
dominated by legalese and jargon. Parents understand that the
system’s caseload is tremendous and that professionals often
face inflexible rules. Nevertheless, no decision about someone’s
child should ever be made without consultation with parents or
guardians. Making matters worse, youth themselves are similarly
excluded from the decision-making process.


“I don’t think the system is
there to help children, just
to contain them.”
–Parent, Bronx, NY



64,558 youth
IN 2007.

$88,000 per year
per youth

$240.99 each day.

“It was just like we were in
the dark.”
–Parent, Jackson, Missouri

Locked Down/Locked Out:
Nearly one in three families surveyed reported that their child’s
first arrest took place at school. Focus group participants discussed the unnecessarily harsh disciplinary measures prevalent
in schools and the lack of available counselors. Families turning
to the few school counselors made available to them for help
and guidance when their child was misbehaving reported negative results. “I repeatedly asked the school for help in keeping my
son in class rather than being suspended and sent home. The
school told me they didn’t have adequate staff or resources to
help,” said a Louisiana parent. Additionally, parents shared that
accessing services, rather than being seen as a positive act, often
marked their child as “high risk,” and was often used as evidence
of youth delinquency and, ironically, created a path into the juvenile justice system.

“Some of the schools are
becoming like little miniprisons.”
—Parent, Oakland, CA

Locked Down/Locked Out:
Fueled by “stop-and-frisk” policies and other aggressive police
tactics in low-income communities of color, the number of youth
referred to juvenile courts for minor misbehavior has risen in the
last fifteen years, despite the fact that these tactics do little to
nothing to address serious crimes.


eight-year-old [was]
handcuffed by the police
officer because they were
taking pictures on top of a
car. ….When I went to the precinct

In J4F focus groups, youth, parents, and family members
expressed deep concern that after an arrest is made, children
are often subject to questionable police practices, including
being physically mistreated, prevented from speaking with their
family before questioning, and not being informed of their rights.
As the number of youth arrests for minor crimes have risen, so
have the number of youth formally prosecuted in juvenile court.
Furthermore, statistics show that racial disparities in minor
crime prosecution tend to be more extreme for these minor
offenses. Even where youth are not found to have committed a
delinquent act, the consequences of youth involvement in the
system are severe.

to pick up my child, my daughter,
both of them an eight-year-old
and a ten-year-old, were handcuffed to a rail.”

—Parent, New York

Locked Down/Locked Out:
Programs like Scared Straight and other “reality” TV shows
about prisons promote the idea that locking up young people will
scare them straight. However, research demonstrates that even
short periods of detention pending trial have profoundly negative impacts on young people’s mental health and well-being,
employment and educational outcomes, and their likelihood of
becoming more deeply involved in the justice system.


When families receive a call from the juvenile detention center
after their child’s arrest and are asked to pick up their child, they
often neither receive information about these harms of detention, nor are they offered the transportation or childcare services sometimes necessary for them to be able to pick up their
detained child. An alarming 80 percent of families reported they
were never provided any information about the harms associated
with detaining a young person before their trial or adjudication,
also referred to as the “dangers of detention.”

“Juvenile detention centers should
have a giant warning label like
those required of prescription

‘These centers
are known to cause harm
to young people.’”

—Grace Bauer, Co-Director, Justice
for Families

Locked Down/Locked Out:
The Courtroom
Parents and families expressed many concerns about the court
•	 Ninety-one percent of family respondents said that courts
should involve families more in decisions on what happens
to a child found delinquent/guilty. Yet, more than eight in ten
family members surveyed reported that they were never asked
by a judge what should happen to their child. Once cases were
called, families described court hearings as proceeding quickly
with no time to understand what was going on or provide input.
•	 Just 18 percent of families reported that professionals in the
youth justice system (judges, probation officers, public defenders, facility staff, and others) were either “helpful” or “very
helpful” during the court process

“We didn’t know what time he was
supposed to be there. We pretty
much got there at the crack of
dawn and just waited. The lawyer
was not very talkative—he was

So it was frustrating and we were upset
over it. And it was done in
like a blink of an eye.”
very rude.

—Parent, New York

•	 Families described having to wait long periods of time before
their children’s cases were heard and not being clear on if, and
when, they would be heard
•	 Focus group participants described feeling blamed throughout
the process and feeling as if they had committed a crime

91% of survey respondents
said that courts should
involve families more in
decisions on what happens
to a child found delinquent/

More than eight in ten family
members surveyed reported
that they were never asked
by a judge what should
happen to their child.

Locked Down/Locked Out:


If youth don’t comply with probation requirements, they often end
up in a confined facility. Focus group participants found the probation system to be a fast track to greater system involvement.
Parents shared that often attempting to access services, rather

“I wanted a program for
him but what he got was
five years probation.”
—Mother, New York

than being seen as a positive act, marked their child as “high
risk,” and placed them on the probation path into deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Locked Down/Locked Out:
Youth Prisons
Once youth have been to court and found guilty of a crime, even a
low-level one, juvenile courts often place them into state-run or
state-funded corrections institutions, i.e. youth prisons.
•	 Eighty-six percent of family members surveyed said they would
like to be more involved in their children’s treatment while they
were confined in a youth prison or other residential placement

“My son has made mistakes in his

But he wasn’t
sentenced to be tortured.”


—Parent, California

•	 Three out of four survey participants reported facing serious
impediments to visiting their children and over half said that
it was difficult to contact staff at the facility to ask how their
child was doing, or get information about their child’s progress
and/or safety
These statistics are especially alarming given the abuse, isolation, violence, and mistreatment common in youth prisons across
the country.

Three out of four survey participants reported
facing serious impediments to visiting their children.

Locked Down/Locked Out:
Youth Re-entry
The release of a child back to their family and community is a
powerfully important juncture that presents a unique set of challenges for both the child and family. Families should be prepared
to deal with these challenges.

“Kids are told, ‘It’s your release
day. Grab your clothes, it’s time to
go.’ This is poor planning on the

only sets
the kids up for failure.”
part of systems and

—Parent, California

•	 Yet, only 32 percent of parents and families surveyed reported
discussing release plans with juvenile justice system personnel
prior to their child’s release
•	 Sixty-nine percent of families surveyed said it was either
“difficult” or “very difficult” to get their child back in school
In addition to difficulty getting back into school, children returning from even short-term placements can face difficulties finding employment, securing a place to live, or getting necessary
medications, to name just a few basic needs. Though measures
of recidivism vary across states, roughly 70-80 percent of youth
released from youth prisons are rearrested in two to three years.

Sixty-nine percent of families
surveyed said it was either “
difficult” or “very difficult” to
get their child back in school.


The juvenile justice system’s impact is felt in families’ pocket
books, at their dinner tables, in the strain on their relationships
and their mental health, and in the lack of opportunities for their
children in the community.

Nearly two-thirds of parents
take time off from work without
pay to support their family
member as a result of their
involvement with the system.

Torn Apart: Economic Impact
The costs associated with a young person’s involvement in the
justice system weigh heavily on families of modest means.
•	 More than half of family members who took part in the Justice
for Families survey reported that their households live on less
than $25,000 per year
•	 One in three families said they have had to choose between
paying for basic necessities like food and making court related

“You can lose everything.
Financially it will pull you
down trying to hold onto a
—Parent, Louisiana

•	 One in five families reported having to take out a loan to make
court related payments
•	 Two out of three parents surveyed reported that they have had
to take time off from work without pay to support their family
member as a result of their involvement with the system
•	 More than one in three families indicated that the cost of
phone calls was prohibitive, and kept them from having contact
with their loved one

Torn Apart: Mental and
Emotional Health Impact

Approximately 1 in 3 families
said they have had to choose
between paying for basic necessities like food and making
court-related payments.

“As a parent of a juvenile that
went through the system ... it
affects the whole family. My
anxiety and stress level went up,
the doctor put me on medication. I was having nightmares

It affects you mentally and
physically having a loved
one that’s in the system.
that they were killing my child.

Focus Group
Bronx, NY

If you don’t know how to navigate
the system, you don’t know what’s
going on. So all kinds of things
are going through your head.”

Photo Courtesy of
Shawn Escoffery


Families suffer the grief of separation, experience the extreme
stress of overwhelming concern for the well-being of their loved
one, and are faced with shame, blame, mistreatment and helplessness and indignation over their exclusion at the hands of the
system. These challenges impact individual family members and
stress relationships in the family.

–Parent, Texas

Families go to tremendous lengths to support their children. They
do this despite the barriers placed before them by the system. If
the goal of the system was to create opportunities for growth and
development for youth instead of merely punishing them—and
their families and communities by extension—we would have a
radically different youth justice system. Families want to help
turn juvenile justice systems that treat young people as “juvenile
delinquents” into youth justice systems that recognize young
people as children and not-yet adults.

Stop Locking Out Families
As a first step toward creating a youth justice system that
engages and partners with families, juvenile courts and juvenile
probation and corrections agencies should eliminate policies and
practices that needlessly burden, alienate, and exclude families.
Instead, juvenile courts and correction agencies should spell
out families’ rights at every relevant stage of the process. For
example, families surveyed indicated some of the many ways
that youth justice system officials might be more responsive to
families during the court process and while youth are in youth or
adult prisons:

“Everybody that has a child that
gets involved with the justice system needs to find out their rights.

Find out your rights first
and foremost.”
–Parent, New York

•	 Give families more timely notification of court dates (87
•	 Hold court appearances when it is easier for families to attend
hearings (85 percent)
•	 Support families’ transportation to court (84 percent) and residential placements (81 percent)
•	 Discontinue taking away visits for misconduct in the facility (76
•	 Maintain a staffed hotline or call center for families who have
questions about visitation (92 percent)
•	 Notify families of expected release dates to allow them sufficient time to prepare (93 percent)
•	 Locate facilities/programs closer to family residences (91
•	 Have more visitation opportunities (91 percent) and fewer limits on who can visit (83 percent)
93% of families wanted better
notification about release dates
to allow them sufficient time to


Start Building in Family
1) Ensure Meaningful Parent/Family Participation in Critical
Youth justice systems should work to ensure that parents and
families play a central role in all decisions that impact their
children. A young person’s parents and family should not only be
invited, but also encouraged to participate in school disciplinary
hearings, and in juvenile court diversion, detention, adjudication,
and dispositional hearings. In Connecticut for example, Case
Review Team (CRT) conferences are used to explore all options
before any young person is committed to residential custody.
These conferences include family members, youth, and system
personnel and have been shown to help prevent further involvement in the justice system.

“What I think should happen is…
they should educate the parent.

Let the parent know, be
aware. ...You want to do the time

with your kid the first time, you
want to be with them. The first
time you’re going to lock them
behind those bars, make me aware
of what’s going on.”

–Parent, New Jersey

Community Meeting,
Bronx, NY.
Photo courtesy of
Connections for
Youth/ Shawn

2) Create, Encourage, and Sustain Peer Support Programs for
Families of Court-Involved Youth.
Youth justice systems should work with community-based
organizations to provide peer support to families. One of the most
consistent themes of these focus group conversations was family
members’ frustration with having no one to talk with who can
understand their stress, explain the process, answer their questions, and provide advice.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children,
Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth, and the Books Not Bars
campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights have mobilized hundreds of parents and family members in their networks,
offering peer support, leadership development, and collective
advocacy opportunities for parents and families of systeminvolved youth.


While all peer-support work is helpful, efforts that couple peersupport strategies with organizing and advocacy offer the greatest potential to transform youth-serving systems for the better.
It is imperative that families not only understand their rights
but also be able to influence the decisions large and small that
impact their children and communities.

“It wasn’t a support group exactly,

It was
other people in a similar
situation saying, ‘My God,
this can’t be. We need to
do something.’ That was
very helpful.”
but that is what it was.

—Family Member, Virginia

3) Building in Family Leadership: Ensure Parents and Families a
Meaningful Voice in Crafting and Reforming Youth Justice Policy
Across the country, youth justice policy needs to be thoroughly
reexamined and families must be involved. An overwhelming
92 percent of families surveyed stated that families should be
engaged in local, state, and federal policy discussions regarding
how juvenile justice systems work and the kinds of programs that
are made available. Yet, just 27 percent reported they had ever
been part of such discussions.


Community-based organizations can play a valuable role in
ensuring meaningful family engagement and partnership in youth
justice systems. These organizations should be supported. While
only 27 percent of all families surveyed reported being involved
in conversations with decision-makers about the juvenile justice system, over half of families who reported involvement in
a community-based organization had been involved in such a

—Mother, California

learned throughout this
whole experience that I’m
going to let my voice be
heard. ...Judges, politicians, I
don’t care. ... If you’re off the mark,
you’re off the mark.”

Stop Locking Down Youth
Focus group and survey participants identified eliminating policies and practices that criminalize youth as a fundamentally
necessary change. Youth justice systems should refrain from
arresting or imposing harsh and disruptive sanctions on youth for
typical youthful misbehavior by:
•	 Eliminating zero tolerance school discipline policies that result
in students being arrested, suspended, or expelled due to
truancy, roughhousing, and other run-of-the-mill adolescent
•	 Ending the criminalization of “defiance” and other vaguely
defined offenses that worsen racial disparities in school

“Even though the facilities are so
bad, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each youth

We can do
better for the youth by
offering real rehabilitation
for the youth, and closing all the abusive youth
who is locked up.

—Mother, California

•	 Ending intrusive and discriminatory stop-and-frisk tactics by
police in low-income communities of color, and curbing arrests
for drug possession and other low-grade misconduct in the
Youth justice systems should eliminate reliance on confinement
and residential placements for youth by:
•	 Sharply reducing the number of young people confined in pretrial detention
•	 Closing inherently abusive and dangerous youth prisons
•	 Treating the small number of youth that system officials deem
as requiring confinement in small, community-based facilities
close to their homes
•	 Developing restorative justice models proven effective even in
the most serious cases as alternatives to confinement
•	 Eliminating the practice of trying youth in adult courts, detaining youth in adult jails or immigration detention centers or
incarcerating youth within adult prisons


Start Building On Youth Start Investing In
And Communities
In our survey and focus groups, youth and family
members articulated time and again the need for a
youth justice system based not on punishment and
“risk management” but on restoration and positive
youth development.
The transformed youth justice system would reallocate resources previously spent on confinement
to fund positive youth development and supervision programs that allow young people to remain
at home and continue in their schooling. These
programs have been shown to be more effective
and less costly in addressing problems that lead
to youth coming in contact with the courts and
in developing the skills youth need to succeed.
Examples of successful programs include:
•	 Intensive wrap-around supervision programs that
pair youth with resources in the community. These
programs pool resources from diverse funding
sources and offer an array of services tailored to
the needs of youth
•	 Rigorous career and vocation training programs
which serve many court-involved youth
•	 Intensive in-home therapy programs that offer
counseling services for youth and families
While resource reallocation from coercion and
control interventions like youth prisons toward more
treatment-focused interventions like intensive inhome therapy programs are helpful, most J4F survey and focus group participants said direct investments in their communities were most needed.

Youth Prison Closure
Stockton, California
Photo Courtesy of
Books Not Bars/
Xiomara Castro


Over the last thirty-five years as local, state, and
federal governments have drastically increased the
amount of funding that goes toward incarcerating
youth and adults, there has also been a precipitous
decline in funding for basic social services including education, affordable housing, job development programs, drug treatment programs, mental
healthcare facilities, and childcare supports. These
disinvestments have disproportionately impacted
the same people hardest hit by failed justice strategies: people of color and and low-income people.
As a matter of equity and public safety, dollars
spent on unnecessary incarceration should be
reinvested in (1) community-driven decision-making
models that draw on the resiliency of youth, family,
and community members to resolve conflict; and (2)
basic social goods that make up the building blocks
of strong communities.
1) Invest in Community-Based Reconciliation
Nearly half of families J4F surveyed have either
personally survived a crime or have a family member who has. Nevertheless, surveyed families who
have a crime survivor in their family were actually
more likely to support alternatives to incarceration
and detention. This suggests that families who have
experienced crime are especially attuned to how the
current youth legal system makes bad situations
worse and, more often than not, does more harm
than good.
A new youth justice system would begin with the
recognition that within each family there are victims
and offenders and that harm is caused by violence
in communities but also by the violence on communities wrought by failed justice strategies. This
trauma-informed approach would bolster justice
strategies that draw their power from the resiliency
inherent in families and communities and see these
communities as assets rather than “trouble-spots”
or “hot-spots.” It would also recognize the trauma
that young people and their families experience and
structure interventions accordingly. Many “restorative justice” models apply these principles with
proven results in cases involving both low-level and
the most serious crimes.

2) Invest in the Building Blocks of Safe Communities
Roughly one in three families reported being told by a teacher,
service provider, child welfare officer, etc. that if they wanted to
get help for a family member, they should call the police. Focus
groups participants described their difficulty in getting institutions unaffiliated with the criminal justice system to intervene
in their children’s lives. In J4F focus groups, families described
addressing the scarcity of, and critical need for, educational,
recreational, and employment opportunities for themselves and
their loved ones as a principal strategy in achieving community
safety. Other research showing the provision of basic needs and
social goods such as education, employment, affordable housing, and drug treatment as positively associated with increased
public safety confirms their analysis.


of arresting the
youth, they should do
something positive. So many

of the youth are locked up for very
petty things. Instead of locking
them up, try to have them do more
positive things with their life.”

—Youth, Massachusetts

Reversing the misguided incarceration epidemic would provide
the funds to make these investments. Youth, families, and others have led important—if still nascent—campaigns to secure
this kind of “justice reinvestment.” But much work remains to be
Justice for Families Blueprint for Youth Justice Transformation
summarizes the critical next steps and long-term changes necessary to build safe and prosperous communities.

Nearly half of the families J4F
surveyed either personally survived
a crime or had a family member
who had.

Surveyed families who have
a crime survivor in their
family were actually more
likely to support alternatives to incarceration and


Justice for Families (J4F) is a national
alliance of local organizations working
to transform families from victims of the
prison epidemic to leaders of the movement
for fairness and opportunity for all youth.
We are founded and run by parents and
families who have experienced “the system”
directly with our own children (often the
survivors of crime themselves). This is our
blueprint toward a family-driven, traumainformed youth justice system.
In School:
•	 Notify parents when a suspension or
expulsion of a student is being considered
and inform them of the date of the suspension or expulsion hearing
•	 Support family involvement and participation in school disciplinary hearings, and
discussions over remedies
•	 Inform students and families of their
Upon Arrest
•	 Notify families immediately in the event
of an arrest
•	 Notify families where a youth is being
•	 Prohibit questioning of youth by police
prior to parent or guardian notification and
consultation with their child
•	 Offer the support of an ombudsperson or
other neutral party with whom families can
file complaints of police maltreatment
Prior to Court
•	 Establish public defender meetings with
families prior to court hearings as a jurisdictional best practice
•	 Allow families to discuss their child’s
case with probation staff, and to participate
in discussions over what treatment, incentives/sanctions, supervision, or service plan
will be recommended to the judge
•	 Provide families with a clear and detailed
orientation to the language and procedures
of the court process, as well as ongoing
counseling/support to answer families’
questions and address their concerns. This
support should be delivered via peer counseling from other parents/family members
that have experienced the juvenile justice

•	 Provide assistance to help the family retrieve their child from juvenile hall
if transportation or childcare difficulties
At Court
•	 Provide families an opportunity to speak
•	 Provide families with a limited time window during which their case will be heard
•	 Allow families to say goodbye to their
loved ones when a youth is sent to a residential placement
•	 Create a ‘jury duty’-like public service
provision excusing families from work
duties for important cases involving family
During Probation Supervision
•	 Provide families frequent outreach from
probation officers to keep parents/families
informed of their child’s progress
•	 Notify families immediately if their child
begins to violate terms of probation or misbehave in other ways (missed school, failed
drug test, violated curfew, skipped required
appointments, etc)
•	 Involve families in discussions and decisions about how best to support youth
•	 Work with families to introduce incentives
for compliance with probation terms and
not just sanctions
•	 Offer services at hours that correspond
with the schedules of working families.
While in Confinement
•	 Place youth within easy travel distance of
their families and communities to facilitate
connection and support
•	 Provide flexible visitation hours and
transportation assistance
•	 End the use of visits as a form of discipline or deprivation
•	 Expand visitation rules to allow anyone in
a youth’s community of care to visit, including extended, and informal family members
•	 Encourage frequent and flexible phone
access to youth, at reasonable (not inflated)
cost. End the use of familial phone access
as a form of discipline or deprivation
•	 Consult and involve families in the treatment and education of their loved ones
•	 Notify families within twenty-four hours

of the death, suicide attempt, or serious
injury of a family member
•	 Consult with and notify families prior to
the transfer of a loved one to another youth
•	 In the few cases where confinement is
deemed necessary by system officials,
house youth in small, home-like environments near their home communities that
focus on therapy, counseling, and education
After Release From Placement
•	 Provide families with sufficient notice to
prepare for the release of their child from a
•	 Consult and involve families in postrelease planning
•	 Provide families with support to ensure
that youth are able to re-enroll in school,
continue any necessary counseling services,
and identify employment opportunities
•	 Provide families with peer support/family partners who can help them navigate
unfamiliar school, arrest, court, probation,
and placement rules’
•	 Issue standards on the fair treatment
of families with juvenile justice systems
including how to most effectively support
families’ active participation and leadership
in the design of youth justice systems
•	 Involve families in all important decision
making points within school disciplinary
and youth justice systems. To that end,
governments should support and promote
family group conferencing models where
families and communities are empowered
to develop solutions that support the needs
of children, while enhancing community
•	 Ensure families and youth are represented in all major youth justice policymaking bodies and facility oversight/
monitoring boards. Care should be taken to
ensure that these representatives are connected to community-based organizations
that can support them in this leadership
•	 Governments should work with the
private sector, philanthropists and others to support parent/family advocacy

At School
•	 Dismantle zero-tolerance approaches,
including the criminalization of truancy and
substance use and abuse
•	 Eliminate the criminalization of “defiance”
and other vaguely defined offenses that
worsen racial disparities in school discipline
•	 Place a moratorium on out-of-school
suspensions and expulsions until the ineffective and racially discriminatory impact of
these policies is addressed
•	 Inform students of their rights
In Communities
•	 Eliminate intrusive and discriminatory
stop-and-frisk tactics by police in lowincome communities of color
•	 Decriminalize drug possession and other
‘quality-of-life’ offenses
•	 Eliminate labeling youth as criminals on
gang databases and injunctions without the
due process rights to notification, appeal,
removal and resources
•	 Decriminalize status offenses (daytime
and night curfews, homelessness/running
away, smoking, etc.)
•	 Do not include youth on sex offender
and other criminal databases that eliminate most opportunities for family and
community re-unification, education or
In Detention and “Placement”
•	 Reduce the number of young people, and
the number of youth of color in particular,
confined in pretrial detention
•	 Close inherently abusive and dangerous
youth prisons and correctional training
schools, and treat the smaller number of
youth system officials deem as requiring
confinement in small community facilities
close to their homes
•	 Develop restorative justice approaches—
proven effective even in the most serious
cases—as alternatives to the confinement
of youth
•	 End the use of solitary confinement for
youth (with the exception of very short periods of separation for the purpose of safety)
•	 Eliminate the practice of trying and
sentencing youth in adult courts, jails, and
•	 Ensure that youth return home with

the documents (IDs, social security card
or information and resources for undocumented youth as needed, transcripts, test
scores and medical records) along with
referrals to ensure youth can access all
essential services and prevent violation
back into confinement
In Schools
•	 Address developmentally predictable
disruptive behaviors in constructive, ageappropriate ways and partner with families
to develop strategies to address disruptive
•	 Invest in positive behavior support and
restorative justice approaches that engage
youth and families in building safe schools
and communities
•	 Replace school police and probation officers with intervention/peace workers in and
around schools, who can also provide safe
passage en route to and from school
In Youth Justice Systems
•	 Align youth justice system practice with
a focus on positive youth development and
the building of ‘good lives’
•	 Fund family-focused/youth supportive
wraparound programs instead of placing
youth in training schools and other residential facilities
•	 Fund educational, employment, and
career development opportunities instead
of youth confinement
•	 Eliminate financially burdensome fines,
supervision fees, citations, and high-dollar
restitution orders for youth misbehavior,
detention or incarceration
•	 Eliminate the bans on federal student
loans, public housing, and occupational
licensing as result of criminal convictions
•	 Abolish state rules that allow child support debt to continue accruing for individuals while they are incarcerated, leaving
them with impossible debts upon release
•	 Remove barriers to employment, licensing, and volunteering by banning governments and government contractors from
discriminating against potential applicants
solely on the basis of their record, unless

there is a very specific, job-related reason
to disqualify such applicants
•	 Repeal laws prohibiting formerly incarcerated people from voting
•	 Eliminate disparate police surveillance
that currently accompanies the provision of
government subsidized housing
•	 End the deportation of youth and parents
•	 Allow Collective Bargaining and enforce
minimum wage standards inside all U.S.
•	 Align youth justice systems with principles of restorative justice. Promote restorative justice approaches that empower
communities to develop community safety
strategies that build on the inherent
strength of communities
•	 Reallocate resources from failed justice
strategies toward investments in families
and communities that support community
•	 Support post-secondary and vocational
education for formerly incarcerated people
•	 Proactively provide quality, culturally
relevant, and affirming education
•	 Protect people’s—including formerly
incarcerated individuals—access and right
to stable, affordable housing
•	 Provide public and private sector incentives for employing formerly incarcerated
youth and adults
•	 Proactively provide and remove barriers
to health services—including mental health
services—needed by all families, including
former or current system-involved youth,
adults, and their families
•	 Invest in reliable and affordable public
transportation services, ensuring that communities that rely on public transportation
have access to not only schools, work, and
services but also detention facilities and
•	 Provide affordable, quality childcare
services to families that need them in order
to maintain familial connections with family
members living in detention facilities and
* Blue text = Justice for Families Bill of


This report represents the deep concerns and shared
demands, aspirations, and hopes of families across the country. Youth involved in the juvenile justice system are the sons
and daughters of restaurant workers, faith leaders, domestic
workers, schoolteachers, as well as the grandchildren of civil
rights heroes and heroines. These families have connections in
their communities to places of worship, unions, parent teacher
associations, and other institutions. Yet, too often, low-income
families, families of color, and all families who have children in
the criminal justice system feel isolated and confused about
where to turn. These families are not alone.

•	 Endorse and promote our Justice for Families Bill of Rights

This country faces a choice: to continue on the path of community disinvestment and incarceration or to build on family
strengths and invest in increasing safety over time; to continue to treat youth and families as objects of punishment
and blame or to partner with youth and families in processes
of community reconciliation. Most Americans would agree
that the latter is the better choice. Now is the time to work
together to make it happen.

Calling All Policymakers

Calling All Families
If you have a family member—close or distant—who has been
involved in the justice system, or if like many of us, you or your
loved one survived a crime but you don’t believe that the current system works to secure greater community safety, there
are lots of things you can do:
•	 Join Justice for Families or one of our local partners
•	 Start your own network of families and link to our work and
the work of other advocates and organizers
•	 Sign and promote our Justice for Families Bill of Rights

Calling All Juvenile
Justice Professionals
If you are a judge, public defender, prosecutor, probation officer, or an academic, you may or may not agree with all of what
we are outlining. But, if you agree there is a need for greater
family leadership and agency in creating a more effective justice system, we need your help:


•	 Act as a spokesperson for family-driven/trauma-informed
approaches to youth justice
•	 Partner with families and support the leadership of families
within juvenile justice policymaking circles
•	 Work with families and community-based organizations to
establish peer-support programs in your jurisdiction
•	 Ask your colleagues, “Have we talked to youth and families
about this decision?”

If you are a policymaker in the halls of Congress or a locallyelected official, we want your support. The laws governing
juvenile justice systems have served to limit the opportunities
of young people and reinforce structural inequity. A first step
to reverse these trends is to work with us to advance our J4F
Bill of Rights at all levels of government. You can also:
•	 Endorse and champion our Justice for Families Bill of Rights
•	 Partner with families to draft legislation in line with familydriven/trauma-informed approaches to youth justice
•	 Partner with Justice for Families and its allies to advance
justice reinvestment

Calling All Allies
If you are a business, labor, civil rights, or faith leader or any
other kind of engaged person, we want to work together. Have
you ever wondered where our community resources have
gone? Too many of them are directed toward supporting locking up young people and locking out their families. Let’s work
together to advance justice reinvestment:
•	 Endorse our Justice for Families Bill of Rights
•	 Promote our Justice for Families Bill of Rights
•	 Partner with us to identify justice reinvestment campaigns
so that we can support public education, affordable healthcare, and other building blocks of thriving communities
Let’s work together to build safer and more prosperous communities for all.


Even when controlling for school poverty, schools with a
School Resource Officer (SRO) had nearly five times the rate
of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO.

17,000 SROs in U.S. schools in 2010



Fueled by increasingly punitive approaches to student behavior such as
‘zero tolerance’ policies, the past 20 years have seen an expansion in the
presence of law enforcement, including school resource officers (SROs),
in schools. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of
school resource officers increased 38 percent between 1997 and 2007.

Schools with
more students
of color are
more likely
to have zero
resulting in
& expulsions

Yet, the prevalence of SROs in schools has little
relationship to reported crime rates.

Although White youth report carrying weapons

Although White youth, Black youth, and Latino youth report using drugs

to school at slightly higher rates than Black

at similar rates, Black youth are detained for drug offenses at almost five

youth, Black youth are more than twice as

times the rate of White youth and Latino youth are detained at twice the

likely to be arrested for weapons possession.

rate of White youth.

Australia 24.9
England 46.8
Finland 3.6
France 18.6
Germany 23.1
Italy 11.3
Japan 0.1
Netherlands 51.3

PER 100,000 YOUTH

We spend approximately
$88,000 per year per
youth in a juvenile
corrections facility

And spend on average
$10,615 per year per
student in a school

1 in 33 American adults is under
correctional control

New Zealand 68.0

1 out of 6 Latino Males will be
incarcerated in his lifetime

Scotland 33.0
South Africa 69.0
Sweden 4.1
USA 336.0

68% of all Males in state and federal
prison do not have a high school diploma

1 out of 3 African-American Males
will be incarcerated in his lifetime
1 in 8 state employees works in


new report is essential reading for those interested
in reforming the juvenile justice system. It documents the
challenges faced by families of incarcerated youth and how they can
be a force of change. From the early 20th century in California to current efforts across the country, families have courageously held public
systems accountable and have launched progressive reforms.”

–Barry Krisberg, Director of Research and Policy, and Lecturer in
Residence Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy
University of California, Berkeley School of Law
“This report provides powerful analysis and insights from voices too

It rejects the
notion that parents are often to blame for youthful misbehaviors and provides specific approaches to involving
parents and families in responses that are equitable,
restorative and effective.”
often ignored in the formal youth justice system.

–James Bell, Founder and Executive Director, W. Haywood Burns
Institute, San Francisco, CA


report is a wake-up call to juvenile justice
practitioners. Through the words and experiences of relatives of

court-involved youth, it poignantly highlights how the system’s policies
and practices undermine the ambitions of families to guide and support
their children and to make their communities safer.”
—Bart Lubow, Director of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice
Strategy Group


far too long, the voices of families have been
missing from the discourse on juvenile justice policy.
This report is an important milestone in ensuring those voices are

–Patrick McCarthy, President and Chief Executive Office, Annie E. Casey
Justice for Families
900 Alice St. Suite 400 Oakland, CA 94607
510.268.6941 f: 510.986.1062