Building a Stronger Juvenile Justice System Through Strong Oversight

June 24, 2014 | Sue Burrell, Staff Attorney, Youth Law Center; Jennifer Carreon, Policy Researcher, Solutions for Youth Justice; and Michelle Weemhoff, Associate Director, Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency


Over the past decade, advocates, families, researchers, the media, and key public officials have shined a light on what happens to youth when they are sent to large prison-like facilities far away from their homes and communities. Extensive research and personal stories made clear that the traditional “corrections” approach was actually causing harm to young people and that new community-based models were highly effective at producing positive outcomes.

Over the past decade, advocates, families, researchers, the media, and key public officials have shined a light on what happens to youth when they are sent to large prison-like facilities far away from their homes and communities. Extensive research and personal stories made clear that the traditional “corrections” approach was actually causing harm to young people and that new community-based models were highly effective at producing positive outcomes. As a result, policy makers began to question the long-held views about juvenile justice, realizing that spending billions of taxpayer dollars on punitive systems actually prevents young people from moving beyond delinquency. Concerns over cost and youth well-being helped to substantiate the need to reduce unnecessary incarceration, dramatically improve existing juvenile facilities, and shift public resources toward local communities.

While the “close-to-home” trend is good news, these efforts have not necessarily resulted in systematic, sustainable ways to address delinquency. Now that we have succeeded in bringing more youth back to local jurisdictions, we need to develop effective ways to demonstrate that youth are actually better off and find ways to explain why that is so. Building on our earlier advocacy, we must measure what we are doing, determine whether it is producing the outcomes we consider important, and use this information to inform further improvements to our system. We must subject institutional settings and community options to the same kind of rigor with respect to outcomes as we would any other kind of service or program.

In many jurisdictions, this work must proceed in systems that were never designed to truly analyze current practice or measure outcomes for youth. While there are many examples of quality monitoring, evaluation, and oversight in individual projects, many states lack the capacity to provide meaningful oversight or outcome information for their systems as a whole. Beyond that, some states do not have an effective entity to provide leadership or policy development for continued system improvement. Examples from our states include the following.


  • Texas has led the nation in developing a relatively strong independent ombudsman office for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The purpose of this office is to investigate, evaluate, and secure the rights of young people committed to the department; report directly to the governor and the legislature; and publish its findings publicly on a quarterly basis. Unfortunately, only five state facilities are subject to strong external oversight from this office, which leaves thousands of youth who may be incarcerated in one of 85 local secure facilities without a strong advocate at the state level.
  • In California, there is no state-level juvenile justice agency, and the state data system is ill-equipped to provide statewide information even for basic issues such as recidivism or the outcomes of specific interventions. The closest thing California has to a policy or oversight body for juvenile justice is a standing committee, the Board of State Community Corrections. Although it is composed of an impressive group of juvenile justice professionals, it meets only a few times a year and has no budget. Local juvenile justice facilities are inspected by the Board of State and Community Corrections once every two years to ensure that they meet the minimum standards for juvenile justice facilities detailed in the state’s Title 15 and Title 24 regulations, but enforcement mechanisms are weak and regulations in key areas fail to address or meet nationally recognized standards. A number of counties have been successfully sued or been the subject of US Department of Justice investigations even though they met state regulations.
  • In Michigan, the local courts make all decisions regarding expenditures with approval from the county commissions and are not required to submit outcome data or report quality measures to the state. While the state does audit these funds, budget cuts and reduced staffing at the Department of Human Services (DHS) have significantly limited the state’s role in providing oversight or guidance for counties. As a result, DHS is unable to accurately report how many youth are placed out of their homes on any given day or evaluate the quality or effectiveness of the programs in which it invests.

Building systems that provide meaningful oversight and information that can be used to drive system improvement will not be easy. But we have come a very long way in demonstrating that the old systems were harmful to youth and extraordinarily expensive for the taxpayers. We are not used to measuring our work in terms of whether what we are doing will keep young people healthy, safe, and on the track to productive lives, but that is where we need to turn our attention now.

Here are some of the ingredients needed to provide a more effective system to measure what we do and to assure that it is producing the outcomes we want.

First, we can provide funding for state and local systems to monitor the progress of reforms. State and local juvenile justice offices, boards, and oversight agencies need sufficient resources to rise to the new challenge of monitoring and leading communities in an overall juvenile justice approach. This will help assure that state and local officials can see what is happening and provide a base from which these agencies can provide leadership and support for ongoing system improvement.

Second, with our success in moving more youth back to community settings, we must set up ways to measure what we are doing with them and whether it is working. In the past, we focused on measuring what was wrong. Our challenge today is how to measure what we are doing right and how effectively we are equipping young people to be successful in their communities. Our outcome measures should be less deficit-based—simply counting arrests or recidivism rates—and more focused on measures of success. A broader set of outcomes would include more measures of young people’s well-being, such as their reconnection to school, graduation, work, treatment, recreation, and family connections. These outcome measures should be collected on a statewide basis and reported publicly.

Third, we should extend, empower, and provide resources to independent oversight offices, such as ombudsman programs or inspectors general offices. These offices help to ensure proper use of public resources and provide needed feedback about facility conditions. Independent oversight mechanisms are not replacements for quality assurance structures—they provide another set of eyes to help keep youth safe and healthy and to help departments improve practice. The scope of oversight should include state- or county-run juvenile corrections facilities, residential treatment centers, other out-of-home placements, and community-based services.

Finally, we need to create procedures that engage youth and their families in the oversight efforts. Both have a great deal to offer in terms of feedback on what is happening and how things could be better or more effective. Accordingly, systems need to intentionally include young people and their families in oversight structures. Stipends should be offered to family members and formerly incarcerated individuals to serve on oversight bodies, and training to help individuals effectively serve on these institutions should be made available.

To a large degree, weak oversight and monitoring in juvenile facilities allowed horrible conditions to develop and persist, eventually giving rise to successful reform efforts. As we move forward, we must insist that independent oversight for facilities is strong and that effective enforcement mechanisms are in place. It should not take a lawsuit or high-profile tragedy to fix institutional problems.

If we really want to help young people move on to successful, productive lives, we need to develop systems that provide effective oversight and guidance, hold programs accountable for achieving desired outcomes, and build on the strengths of each young person.

Sue Burrell is a staff attorney for the Youth Law Center, based in San Francisco, California; Jennifer Carreon is a policy researcher, Solutions for Youth Justice, for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition; and Michelle Weemhoff is the associate director for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. All three attended convenings organized by NCCD.