When It Comes to Youth Justice, a Look Abroad Could Teach Us Lessons

Tuesday, May 5, 2015
by Diane Sierpina, Program Director of Justice Programs, The Tow Foundation
This piece originally appeared on the Youth Transition Funders Group blog
It’s tough for many Americans to even consider that there are people living elsewhere in the world who are better at doing something than we are. But when it comes to handling young people in trouble with the law, the countries with whom we most often compare ourselves have figured out how to do just that.
In early March, I had the good fortune of joining a team of passionate New York City criminal and juvenile justice officials invited to London to learn how the justice system in the United Kingdom treats juveniles and young adults up to age 25. The Barrow Cadbury Trust, a 95-year old foundation, had invited Vincent Schiraldi, a well-known justice advocate and policymaker now serving as senior advisor in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, to be the keynote speaker at a national conference focused on the needs and treatment of young adults in the justice system. Forward-thinking, as always, Vinny decided it was a great opportunity to put a team together from NYC – including a senior judge; the commissioners of corrections, juvenile justice/child welfare, and probation, and a senior attorney from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office – to meet with British colleagues and potentially identify good practices that could be implemented collaboratively when they returned home. The Tow Foundation, a longtime funder of system reform in NY State, was invited to tag along.
Our host, the Centre for Justice Innovation, the sister agency to the Center for Court Innovation in NYC, arranged specialized agendas for team members based on their interests. Peer-to-peer conversations generated productive information exchanges about model policies and practices, some better in the U.S. and some better in the U.K. NYC Probation Commissioner Ana Bermudez was impressed and inspired that no child under age 18 involved in England’s justice system is assigned to our model of “probation.” Instead, local Youth Offending Teams made up of social service providers, educators, law enforcement and public health professionals, assess the youth and determine the services needed to rehabilitate them. In the U.K. youth justice system, public safety is a priority – but, in reality, youth rehabilitation and well-being are the first priorities. And restorative justice is a key philosophy.
Some NYC team members visited 10 Downing Street to exchange policy information with the Prime Minister’s senior staff. We all met with Stephen Greenhalgh, London’s Deputy Mayor for Crime & Policing, who was very interested in how New York City is handling older adolescents. London, which has the same population as NYC, is experiencing similar gang violence and high recidivism rates among teens and young adults. However, a comparison of the cities by the Centre for Justice Innovation shows that NYC courts sentence offenders to confinement at six times the rate of London courts, whereas London courts use fines six times more frequently than NYC courts. The Deputy Mayor was impressed that, in America, cross-system collaboration on policies and practices could take place at the local level more easily than in the U.K. We also had dinner at the House of Lords in Parliament with three Lords who had decades of experience in probation, law enforcement and other senior government roles.
I spent time with the staff of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, who are key leaders in several funder collaboratives in the UK and cross-Europe addressing such issues as youth justice, migration, women and human rights. One of the major projects they lead is the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance, which has prompted positive policy and practice changes in England to address the needs and development of young adults ages 18 to 24 involved in the criminal justice system. Six projects across England currently work with these young adults at different stages of the justice system, incorporating a restorative justice approach and addressing mental health, substance abuse, education, employment, family, and re-entry issues. Since T2A’s inception in 2008, more than 40 research and policy reports have been produced on the model to promote system changes. In one study called “Repairing Shattered Lives: Brain injury and its implications for criminal justice,” Professor Huw Williams of the University of Exeter, reported that 60% of young prisoners in England suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury, which criminal justice professionals rarely consider, but which may increase the risk of offending. Vinny reported that research published in late 2013 on newly admitted adolescents in NYC’s Rikers Island jail found that 50% of the young males and 49% of the young females had a history of Traumatic Brain Injury. For more information on “Traumatic Brain Injury Among Newly Admitted Adolescents in the New York City Jail System,” read here.
Like The Tow Foundation and other American foundations, the Barrow Cadbury Trust works closely with government officials at the local and national level, convenes meetings, sponsors events, and invests in research, services and advocacy. Unlike most American foundations, and in light of a different governmental structure and culture of respectful patience, they find it more beneficial to work on reform without media attention and investments in radical advocates, but rather with careful, polite cultivation of senior policy makers to their point of view. We were told there were essentially two prison reform advocacy groups in the U.K.; one so typically radical that its impact on government change is limited. At the end of our visit, our hosts were very pleased that, at the T2A conference, senior law enforcement and other policy makers indicated willingness to consider that youth up to age 21 should be treated more age-appropriately and not like adults – the first time they had publicly taken that position! These converts made our hosts hopeful for future reform.
England is not the only European country that is transforming its justice system to consider the maturity and educational needs of youth and young adults, with the goal of increasing the juvenile age to 21. Germany has been treating 18 to 21 year olds in juvenile court since 1953. Prison sentences range from five to 10 years, even for the most serious offenders, and are served in special youth prisons that offer a wide range of education and vocational training. Some of the NYC team members proceeded to Germany to visit a model youth prison for violent offenders, Neustrelitz near Berlin, and left very impressed. Training is offered in horticulture, carpentry, metalwork, welding, stock breeding and occupational therapy, among other careers. Mental health treatment was particularly intense on one specialized unit for very serious offenders. And during leisure time, the youth can take piano and guitar lessons, participate in choirs and play a variety of sports. If German policy isn’t progressive enough, we also learned that the Netherlands has raised the juvenile age to 23 as of April 2014, based largely on adolescent brain and youth development research. For more information on European policies, read here.
Now the NYC officials and I are back in our offices. There are promises to meet together and consider what reforms they can put in place right away, without legislation or too much noise. Vinny reports that Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has already announced that he’ll be opening a specialized housing unit for inmates ages 18 to 21 and the courts and Manhattan DA are taking special care to divert youth ages 16 and 17, who, in New York State, are still tried in adult court, although Governor Andrew Cuomo has submitted legislation to raise the juvenile age to 18 (only North Carolina and New York have the age of juvenile jurisdiction at 16!). We also learned that there may be significant funding available in NYC for transformative youth justice programming!
What really came out of this travel abroad for me was an awareness that we Americans could do things a whole lot better if there is a will. Our cousins abroad, in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere, have figured out that children and young people who offend are not adults and need special care. It’s time that foundations help promote the adoption of a similar value system and work with our allies, as well as the unconverted, to help children and youth navigate challenges to increase their odds for healthier, more productive futures. The level of punishment our justice system promotes is contributing to more and more failed lives and less community safety.
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