Youth Justice

Millions of young Americans today are off track, unable to secure a foothold on the road to meaningful employment, economic stability and prosperity. This disconnection carries negative consequences for them personally, for our communities, and for our nation as a whole.

Among these youth are hundreds of thousands of young adults who have spent time in the juvenile or adult justice system for nonviolent offenses. They face extremely steep odds in rebuilding their lives once they are released and are at heightened risk for permanent disconnection from the economy and society.

On any given day, an estimated 60,000 youth are confined in juvenile detention and correctional facilities; hundreds of thousands more are on probation.

In addition, an estimated 200,000 youth under age 18 are sent into the adult criminal justice system each year, often for misdemeanor offenses. Incarceration can yield disastrous results for their long-term rehabilitation and future.

Youth justice is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time. Teens and young adults who are involved in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems are disproportionately identified as having special needs in school and are disproportionately low-income, black and Hispanic. Many have endured mental or physical hardships and spent time in foster care – circumstances we know place them at increased risk for disconnection.

There is mounting bipartisan support for comprehensive criminal justice reform. This includes measures that would reduce the number of young adults who are corralled into juvenile or adult justice systems for minor offenses and measures that would improve educational and career pathways after young adults have been released from custody.

Who are these young people?

The majority of U.S. youth in custody – two-thirds — are confined or incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Many of them have learning disabilities, mental and behavioral health issues.


A recent report using federal data found that 30 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system in 2010 had learning disabilities; 45 percent had problems paying attention; and 30 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse.

While they are confined, many of these youth, who range in age from 13 to 21, lack access to a high-quality education and other services that could help them rebuild their lives and gain valuable skills. During the 2011-2013 school year, for example, fewer than half – just 47 percent – of youth in correctional facilities earned high school course credits.

Their career prospects and ability to successfully reintegrate into society are greatly diminished when they are released.

How this affects opportunity:

We know that youth disconnection has a negative impact on a region’s ability to expand access to the American Dream for residents. When our youth do well, our communities do well.

The lower the rate of youth disconnection, as measured by the Opportunity Index, the higher a region’s Opportunity Score. One of the most effective ways to increase access to opportunity is to ensure that young Americans have the supports they need to embark on meaningful education and career pathways.

But research shows that this is extremely difficult for youth with experience in the juvenile or adult justice systems. The stigma of incarceration makes it hard to even get in the front door of many businesses. Recidivism rates are sky-high. Locked out of opportunity and reintegration into the life of the community, an estimated 75 percent of those who return home from prison are rearrested within five years.

We all pay the price for this disconnection in wasted talent, lost earnings and tax revenues and increased social services. A recent report found that jailing young Americans costs state and local governments $21 billion a year. Locking up one juvenile costs $148,767 for a single year.

There is increasing bipartisan support for reform efforts.

Spurred by new research about best practices for juvenile justice and out-of-control prison costs, Republicans and Democrats are increasingly joining together to support policies and bipartisan legislation linked to juvenile justice reform.

In today’s economy, we can’t afford to sideline any of our talent. We need everyone who wants to work out on the field, doing their part.

Opportunity Nation believes that bipartisan legislation, effective programs and smart policy that remove barriers to meaningful employment for nonviolent offenders would help to reduce unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment and disconnection and would play a large role in expanding opportunity in communities.

Learn more about youth justice reform in our call to action, “We Got This: Youth Employment” to make sure all of our young adults have a shot at reaching the American Dream.

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