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Allegheny County could improve its juvenile justice system — along with the lives of the region's poorest and most vulnerable children — by doing more to listen to juvenile offenders, identify disruptions in their home lives and incorporate their input into policymaking, a report published Monday found.
The Pittsburgh Foundation announced the completion of an eight-month study that involved partnering with community-based nonprofits to interview 53 youths and young adults with former or active cases in the county's juvenile justice system. Foundation officials expect the 31-page report's findings to spur grantmaking opportunities and community partnerships.
“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,” The Pittsburgh Foundation CEO and President Maxwell King said in a statement.
A common feeling echoed among the study's participants, whose average age was 18: The adults in charge didn't seem to care enough to ask why they had acted out.
“A lot of things happened that got me there,” a 17-year-old girl on probation told researchers, “and nobody ever went back and asked me what happened and how I had got there.”
“My mom tried to kill me, and I had to fight to survive, and I had to fight my mom,” said another interviewee, “and then I got in trouble for fighting her.”
A participant who faced repercussions for truancy pointed out that “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.”
The report, called “A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System,” marks the first research initiative to emerge from the foundation's 100 Percent Pittsburgh efforts, which aim to study and reduce inequities across greater Pittsburgh.
“We really wanted to invest our energy in amplifying the voices of these kids,” said Michael Yonas, who led the juvenile justice research and is the foundation's senior program officer for research and special initiatives. “We need this work to be about action and about helping support young people to thrive, and we want to continue to learn.”
About 3,300 youths were referred to the county's Office of Juvenile Probation in 2015, county data show. Just shy of 1,000 were placed in secured detention — a 15 percent drop from 2014, data show. About 700 faced home detention, a 14 percent increase from 2014.
Nearly three-quarters of juveniles were referred for nonviolent crimes such as drugs, theft or failure to pay court fees and restitution.
“It is so easy to get into the juvenile system,” one juvenile on probation told researchers, “and so hard to get out.”
The makeup of youths who get referred to the juvenile system is disproportionately poor and black.
Blacks make up 20 percent of county residents ages 10 to 17 but account for about 75 percent of local juveniles screened at detention intake, the report said.
Yonas led the research effort with help from a 22-member advisory group of youth advocates, program providers, University of Pittsburgh data analysts and experts in law, mental health, education and human services.
Among their recommendations: ensure youths have a greater voice in system reforms, diversion programs and policymaking; improve school discipline and referral policies; focus more attention on at-risk girls of color; and revamp potentially harmful or unfair court fee and restitution policies.
“People think that juvenile court is just a slap on the wrist, but there's long term consequences,” such as being excluded from jobs, colleges and the military, said Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, assistant clinical professor at Duquesne University's Juvenile Defender Clinic. “A dime bag of weed becomes something that can derail a child's entire academic career.”
Adolescents tend to have a “heightened sense of fairness” and respond better when they feel informed and involved during the decision-making process — even if they don't like what a judge or probation officer ultimately decides, Sizemore-Thompson said.
“When people feel heard during a court process, they're more likely to be compliant,” she said.
Key to building resiliency and positive long-term outcomes is ensuring all children have access to “a thoughtful, caring adult who is consistent, honest and transparent,” Yonas said.
A juvenile probation interviewee lamented that caseworkers or doctors seem to “try medication because it's easier than trying to dig deeper.”
“They could just be like, ‘How are you feeling today? Is anything on your mind? Did you eat? Are you OK?'” remarked another youth with experience in the system. “I just like for people to show me that they care.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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