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Harnessing data and information can lead to a better youth justice system

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.


A bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress and state legislatures on the need to focus on finding ways to reduce the over 2 million people in our prisons and jails and make our communities safer.

With 18 to 24-year-olds making up roughly one in five people incarcerated in America’s prison and jails — about half of whom are people of color — reducing the number of these young adults locked up is a necessary step towards enhancing public safety.

The public safety stakeholders we heard from said we should refocus our efforts towards community-based approaches that meet the needs of young adults, largely outside the justice system.

The stakeholders we convened said we should fashion an approach to young adults that is community-based, developmentally appropriate, individually tailored, and affords more confidentiality around criminal records — all policy approaches that reflect the best practices seen in the juvenile justice system, where youth confinement and youth crime rates have both fallen dramatically.

We heard that there was a need to ensure that young adults get the schooling, housing, job training, and health care they need to move past crime, echoing the call offered this week by the D.C-based Center for Court Excellence on what people leaving federal prisons need to succeed when they return to D.C.’s communities.

While these national and local research pieces highlight the importance of holistic, community-based approaches to improving public safety and reducing young adults justice system involvement, the Washington Post recently critiqued only one part of what we heard stakeholders want, one law (the Youth Rehabilitation Act), and its modest provisions to help young people change their behavior.

This law, and others like it give someone in their late teens and early twenties the opportunity for the kind of individually tailored sentences and confidentiality more often afforded to youth in the juvenile justice system than young adults in the criminal justice systems.

If we are going to enhance public safety and reduce prison and jail populations, we need to heed the words of D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, and provide “the kind of information the public is owed,” showing the full picture on how to best serve young adults.

The full picture means, expanding provisions that allow a young person leaving prison some confidentiality around their record so they can get a job, get housing and successfully transition into a productive, law abiding adult. 

The next president, the next Congress, and the next D.C. Council need to afford more confidentiality protections for young adults leaving prison and jail, not curb them.

The full picture means, doing a better job of addressing the needs of crime victims, and give them what they say they need when they’ve been harmed. A recent survey showed that six out of 10 crime victims preferred shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation, versus keeping people in prison for as long as possible, and better access to information and services. 

Instead of needlessly long prison terms that the research show will not make us safer, local and federal policymakers should be leveraging the increased funding available under the Victims of Crime Act to ramp up services for crime victims across the country.

The full picture means, federal and local leaders need to take steps that are consistent with the research, and ensure that young adults have every opportunity to succeed upon release.

If a young person is sentenced to prison, they should be close-to- home, not sent to a federal prison hundreds of miles from D.C. And wherever a young adult is confined, we need to plan for their return home from the day they touch the system, and prepare them to connect to a job, housing, and family support so they can move past crime.

The full picture of our public safety challenge must include the fact that the vast majority of young adults that benefit from laws that affords them a slightly shorter sentence, and more confidentiality around their records will almost never go on to engage in the kind violence that garners newspaper headlines.

Finally, President Obama’s administration and D.C. government put more money into community-based approaches to connect young adults to jobs, treatment and housing. If we want the full picture, we need to follow the research on how to improve our approach to young adults, continue these efforts, analyze them for their efficacy, and reject changes that will simply lengthen prison-terms, and do little to make us safer.


This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

You can follow Marc on Twitter at @marc4justice .

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