Youth Justice

Prison is no place for kids. Investing in effective community-based visions of justice is good for kids, for families, for communities, and for public safety.

Developing Alternatives that Empower Youth to Succeed

Today across the United States, thousands of children – disproportionately youth of color – languish in locked facilities. It is a sober reminder that our nation continues to choose to warehouse our most valuable asset: our children.

Children are too often referred to a punitive criminal justice system for misbehaviors that would more appropriately be handled within families, schools and communities. Despite research showing that incarceration leads to high youth recidivism rates, as well as poor education, employment, and health outcomes, prosecutors and the courts often fail to use alternatives to incarceration that have been shown to be more effective at rehabilitating young people. Youth of color are disproportionately likely to suffer the harms of these failed policies and practices.

There is a better way.

Public Welfare Foundation supports organizations working in its targeted jurisdictions to advance a fair and effective community-based vision of youth justice, with a focus on ending the criminalization and incarceration of youth of color. In particular, the Foundation makes grants to groups working to:

  • Advance state policy reforms that dramatically restrict youth incarceration, abandon the youth prison model, and adopt community-based approaches for youth in the juvenile justice system;
  • End the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system; and
  • Support innovative strategies to counter structural racism in the youth justice system, with a particular focus on front-end reforms.

Advancing a Community-Based Vision of Youth Justice

Research shows that secure custody does more harm than good and can increase a youth’s risk of engaging in crime. By contrast, studies reinforce that local interventions, not prison, are more likely to get a youth back on track and improve community safety.

Yet each day approximately 48,000 youth are held in youth facilities across our country, many for low-level offenses and technical parole violations. More effective alternatives exist, including for those youth who have committed more serious offenses; alternatives that provide the services necessary to address adverse childhood experiences and promote economic self-sufficiency. For all youth who are behind bars, enough is enough.

Warehousing Children

It’s Time to Treat Kids Like Kids

Youth housed in adult jails or prisons on any given night

Number of kids held in youth facilities in the U.S.

Youth who are tried in the adult criminal system annually

Resources & Media

Eliminating Racial & Ethnic Disparities in Youth Justice

W. Haywood Burns Institute

W. Haywood Burns Institute Founder and Executive Director James Bell shares his organization's efforts to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity by building a community-centered response to youthful misbehavior that is equitable and restorative. The W. Haywood Burns Institute is a Oakland-based national nonprofit that helps protect and improve the lives of youth of color and poor youth by promoting and ensuring fairness and equity in youth-serving systems.

Closing Youth Prisons & Redirecting Resources

Youth First! Initiative

The Youth First! Initiative is a national advocacy campaign working to end the incarceration of youth in juvenile prisons and redirect resources towards effective community based programs for youth.

Jim Crow Juvenile Justice

In the US, African American youth are 5x more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, even when charged with similar offenses. Youth prisons are a legacy of slavery. It’s time to turn the page.