The Pittsburgh Foundation

Foundation report calls for youth voices in juvenile justice reform

In March of 2015, Amachi Ambassador Tiger Weaver provided testimony in Harrisburg, PA about his experience and the impact of having an incarcerated parent to help legislators’ understanding about decisions and policies that have the potential to negatively impact innocent children and their families.

Eight areas identified where youth and stakeholders can improve system     

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 13, 2017 – An eight-month study by The Pittsburgh Foundation has found that youth involved with the Allegheny County juvenile justice system could play a much greater role in shaping prevention and diversion programs. The report also recommends addressing disproportionate system involvement by youth of color, particularly girls, and that youth have a seat the table with human services staffs, law-enforcement authorities and school officials.

The report advocates for schools to reform discipline policies and cultivate race-positive curriculum and calls for changes to court-related fees and restitution policies, which can leave some youth trapped in the system.  

The report, “A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Pilot Project,” begun in fall 2015 by the Foundation’s Program and Policy staff, to amplify the voices of youth by gathering first-person data from those who have experienced the juvenile justice system or are at risk of being involved with it in Allegheny County. The Foundation’s review of local and national research shows that juvenile justice system involvement is a direct result of poverty and near-poverty conditions, as well as structural racism. But data alone do not tell the fully story.

“If we mean to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, reform efforts must include listening to youth and involving them fundamentally in shaping programs and policy actions,” said Maxwell King, the Foundation’s president and CEO. “The most valuable insights come from young people willing to offer unflinching descriptions of their lives against a backdrop of poverty and the juvenile justice system.”

The report also recommends involving youth in reforming school culture, curriculum and disciplinary policies to move toward restorative justice models; engaging youth as advocates with their peers against system involvement; exploring and supporting interdisciplinary training opportunities for youth and their families and advocates; and supporting initiatives that combine data with youth expertise to identify and address disparities.

Michael Yonas, the Foundation’s senior program officer for research and special initiatives, led the participatory research effort and worked closely with a 22-member advisory group of local youth advocates, program providers and system partners, Foundation colleagues and data analysis experts from the University of Pittsburgh. The primary goal of the study and follow-up actions is to work with youth to identify opportunities for systems change through grants, convening, additional research, policy and advocacy initiatives. 

The juvenile justice pilot is the first research initiative of 100 Percent Pittsburgh, a new organizing principle adopted by the Foundation in 2015 to address inequality. Despite advances in the regional economy, roughly one-third of the regional population struggles with poverty. Youth ages 12 to 24 and single women raising children are at greatest risk of falling into poverty, according to a 2014 Urban Institute study. The goals of the pilot project are to support youth, to bring regional and national attention to the many factors influencing youth involvement in the justice system and to highlight intervention and prevention opportunities that can reduce the numbers of young people flowing through the school-to-prison pipeline.

The 2015 annual report from the Allegheny County Office of Juvenile Probation indicates that 3,328 young people were referred to the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County. Of those referred, 972 youth were placed in secured detention, a 15 percent decrease from 2014, while 704 youth were placed in electronic home monitoring/home detention, a 14 percent increase from 2014. On local and national levels, youth of color are disproportionately represented in the system. The county’s annual report also showed that 10 percent of children age 10 to 17 in Pittsburgh Public Schools have had some involvement with the juvenile justice system, and that 73 percent of referrals from school, law enforcement and community settings to juvenile probation were for nonviolent crimes such as drugs, theft and or failing to pay court fines.

How the research was structured: Working in partnership with youth-serving nonprofits familiar with the juvenile justice system, the Foundation led five discussion groups with 53 youth from a variety of settings. Youth described the factors and events in their lives that led to juvenile justice system involvement and how their own voices and opinions influenced, or did not influence, the experience. They were also asked to suggest improvements to the system. Five intermediary organizations that serve on the advisory group played an instrumental role by having in-depth conversations co-facilitated by a young person with previous system involvement. This approach to facilitation established trusting and respectful discussions among foundation staff and youth participants.

Focusing on the voices of youth affected by juvenile justice and poverty was an intentional effort to operationalize the 100 Percent Pittsburgh value of amplifying the voices of those affected by poverty and other social challenges.

“The voices of youth are often missing, even though they have firsthand knowledge of the juvenile justice system. Their voices are an essential complement to the existing quantitative data if we are to make meaningful systems change and understand the reasons for disproportionate involvement of youth by race and gender,” said research leader Yonas. “We plan to work with partners across multiple settings to address disproportionality, support prevention efforts and help youth thrive.”

Some of the direct quotes from youth in the study include:

  • “A lot of times there are issues that keep you from going to school: heat, water, your clothes are dirty and you can’t wash them.” 

  • “A lot of things happened that got me there, and nobody ever went back and asked me what happened and how I had got there.”
  • “I just wouldn’t lock kids up that quickly, small things shouldn’t lead to probation, or the label of probation that makes them a ‘bad kid.’ It always starts with in-school probation and then escalates from there.”  
  • “I feel like if there’s somebody who can get to the deeper issue and get to the root of that and try to help that before getting into the courts, there would be less kids getting juvenile probation and everything else.”
  • “It is so easy to get into the juvenile system and so hard to get out.” 

  • “My judge now, she’s nice, real nice. She took me in the back room and talked to me to get my life story, and she was real supportive when I was pregnant, and she helped me out the most. She helped me get in a foster home instead of placement [a group home]. If I wanted to meet with a family she would try that, too, to see if that works, instead of just throwing me in placement or in a detention center.” 

Going forward, the Foundation is working with partner organizations to identify and fund specific programs to realize these recommendations. For example, advocate Anna Hollis of Amachi Pittsburgh, is optimistic.

“The most important element of the Voices initiative has been integrating youth—the ‘real experts’—into every step of the process. Making their involvement a priority ensures authenticity of the data and the recommendations,” says Hollis.

The full report is available for download here: 

Youth Voices Study


# # #