Urban America Forward | “Youth Violence Intervention and Juvenile Justice”

‘The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without parole.” – Randolph Stone, University of Chicago Law School 

“The most dangerous drug in the inner city—alcohol—needs discussion. Data from Illinois Violent Death Records demonstrates that 1/3 of young crime victims have significant blood alcohol content at death.” – Harold Pollack, University of Chicago Crime Lab

“A criminal justice reform lens is insufficient because it views people as bad; bad is not available in a health vocabulary.” – Gary Slutkin, Cure Violence

“I am an abolitionist, which means I believe in the end of prisons, policing, and surveillance.” – Mariame Kaba, Project NIA

“We must reminder that these are our youth, not those youth.” – Neva Walker, Coleman

“For black and brown children, the very notion of childhood has been taken away from them.” – Tracy Benson, Community Justice Network for Youth

“Data is important but it has to be understood and used for action.” – Mariame Kaba, Project NIA

More than 80 percent of urban youth are exposed to violence.[1]  In Chicago, up to 96 percent of youth in certain neighborhoods are exposed to violence, including witnessing homicide. Often, violence interventions focus on individual adolescents, which can have short-lived effects because youth return to the same neighborhoods, pressures, and context. Meanwhile, youth of color are over-represented in the American justice system, which requires an in-depth exploration of evidence-driven practices to prevent youth violence and curb bias at every stage in the juvenile justice system.

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

Treat violence as a public health issue. The CDC takes a public health approach to violence prevention that involves: (1) gathering data to grasp the magnitude of the problem; (2) identifying risk and protective factors; (3) developing and testing prevention strategies; (4) and scaling intervention and prevention strategies that have proven effective.[7]

Children can change. In some instances, a young person’s judgment is not fully formed until age 25. Justice policy must take this and the effects of trauma on behavior into account.

The vast majority of serious juvenile offenders desist from antisocial activity by their early twenties.[8]

Prisons do not make children better. We must change people’s minds about prisons and their use.

Youth in the juvenile justice system must have quality representation. Youth require representation to prevent wrongful convictions, reduce detention and confinement, and to ameliorate the collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement. Poor children are not appointed counsel until they appear in court, while families with resources can hire lawyers to represent their children at police stations. Often public defenders have inadequate support and extreme caseloads.

Policy approaches should consider the experience of girls and young women, gender-nonconforming youth, and others who tend to be ignored. Girls represent an ever-growing share of those arrested, detained, and committed to custody. Girls of color experience significant disparities as they move through the juvenile justice system. Moreover, 40 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system describe themselves as lesbian, bisexual, questioning/gender nonconforming, or transgender (LBQ/GNCT).[9]

Policy Recommendations

Adopt comprehensive place-based policies to curb juvenile violence. Research demonstrates that interventions focused on families and comprehensive and coordinated resources in neighborhoods can have longer-term effects than interventions focused solely on the individual.[10]

Allocate more funding to address youth violence as a health epidemic.

Prioritize funding for community-based alternatives over juvenile detention. Community-based alternatives and services are the most effective way to ensure community safety and reduce recidivism. To invest in community interventions, we must redirect funds from confinement and wean ourselves from an over-reliance on incarceration.

Models and Tactics

Cure Violence provides a public health approach to violence intervention. Implemented in 25 cities, Cure Violence deploys violence interrupters who are from the neighborhood to prevent violence before it occurs. Independent evaluations supported by the Department of Justice and the CDC have shown 40-70 percent reductions in shootings and killings following implementation of the Cure Violence method.[11]

The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, one of six National Academic Centers of Excellence funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, works at the neighborhood, community, school, and family levels to implement a coordinated set of programs that rigorous scientific evaluations prove effective in preventing youth violence. Working in the neighborhood schools, leveraging existing resources in the community, and providing technical assistance to violence prevention agencies, CCYVP has seen a significant reduction in violence, including a 50 percent reduction in homicides in four years.[12]

Project NIA conducts participatory action research with young people affected by police abuse to help them make sense of their own surroundings. Largely through Freedom of Information Act requests, Project NIA obtains information about juvenile arrests and uses the data to develop a political education conversation with young people.[13]

We Charge Genocide took police violence against Chicago youth to the international stage, calling it genocide and torture, and shedding light on anti-black racism. Eighty-nine percent of the juveniles in Cook County temporary detention center are African American, as are almost 70 percent of those held in juvenile prisons.[14]

Becoming a Man, organized by Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago, is a one-hour per week youth cognitive behavioral therapy program with a mentoring component that has reduced violent crime by at-risk youth during the school year by 40 percent.[15]

Summer jobs. The One Summer Chicago Plus summer jobs program offers youth from neighborhoods with elevated rates of violent crime with employment opportunities, mentoring and therapy during the summer.  At risk youth who participated in the 2012 One Summer Plus program experienced a 51 percent drop in arrests for violent crime.[16]


[1] F. Sherman and A. Balck, “Gender Injustice: System Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls” (Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center and the National Crittenden Foundation, 2015), p. 21, http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/ed_rp_gender_injustice.pdf

[2] Centers for Disease Control, “Youth Violence: Facts at Glance” (Atlanta: CDC, n.d.),  http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/YV-DataSheet-a.pdf.

[3] John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, “Juvenile Justice in a Developmental Framework: A Status Report” (Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2015), https://www.macfound.org/media/files/MacArthur_Foundation_2015_Status_Report.pdf.

[4] Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, “Racial Inequality in Youth Sentencing” (Washington, DC: CFSY, n.d.),  http://fairsentencingofyouth.org/the-issue/advocacy-resource-bank/racial-inequality-in-youth-sentencing/.

[5] J. Goff et al., “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(4)(2014): 526-45. 

[6] J. Rovner, “Juvenile Life without Parole.” Policy Brief. (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2016),  http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/jj_Juvenile_Life_Without_Parole.pdf.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention” (Atlanta: CDC, Injury and Prevention Control Division, n.d.), http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/overview/publichealthapproach.html.

[8] L. Steinberg et al., “Psychosocial Maturity and Desistance from Crime in a Sample of Serious Juvenile Offenders,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin, March 2015, http://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/248391.pdf; E. Mulvey, “Highlights from Pathways to Desistance: A Longitudinal Study of Serious Adolescent Offenders” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, March 2011), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/230971.pdf.

[10] D. Gorman-Smith et al., “What Should be Done in the Family to Prevent Gang Membership?” In Changing Course: Preventing Gang Membership, edited by T. Simon et al. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, n.d.), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/243470.pdf

[11] National Public Radio, “Why should we treat violence like a contagious disease.” TED Radio Hour episode, Seven Deadly Sins, part 4 (Boston: WBUR, February 2015), http://www.wbur.org/npr/379185265/why-should-we-treat-violence-like-a-contagious-disease

[12] C. David-Ferdon et al., “CDC Grand Rounds: Preventing Youth Violence,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 64 (2015): 171-74; D. Gorman-Smith et al., Strengthening Families and Communities to Prevention Youth Violence:  A Public Health Approach,” Children’s Law Journal, 34 (2014): 265-77.

[13] For more on this organization, see http://www.project-nia.org/home.php

[14] For more on this organization, see http://wechargegenocide.org/

[16] City of Chicago, “Study: Chicago's One Summer Plus Youth Employment Program Cuts Violent Crime Arrests in Half” (Chicago, Aug. 6, 2013), http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/mayor/press_room/press_releases/2013/august_2013/study_chicago_s_onesummerplusyouthemploymentprogramcutsviolentcr.html