Never Too Late: Transitioning from Juvenile Justice


Erin Russ, Program Associate

When the William T. Grant Foundation and AYPF founder Samuel Halperin published “The Forgotten Half Revisited” in 1998, they approached their work of documenting the older, disconnected youth population (including justice-involved youth) with five principles. Among them was the simple yet powerful truth that “It is never too late to make a difference.

Juvenile Justice Reform Progress

For youth involved in the justice system, this is a welcome idea. In 2011 more than 31 million youth ages 10-17 were under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court. These young people face decreased likelihood of future opportunities, including education, employment, and long-term permanency and success. In the decades since the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was passed, clear progress has been made to reduce the number of youth in confinement, decrease referrals to the juvenile justice system, and support the use of alternatives to incarceration. We know this because we also have better ways of measuring youth’s involvement with the justice system, illustrated by these figures:

The evidence of progress is clear: fewer young people are being referred to the juvenile justice system, the conditions of involvement have improved, and states have begun to develop appropriate alternatives and responses to juvenile offenses. A combination of federal policy and state and local action has led to an overall reduction in the number of youth who come into contact with the system, as well as reform of juvenile justice processes. But what happens next?

Opportunity: Reentry

In order for policymakers to continue to make progress in the area of juvenile justice reform, we must ask “what’s next” for a young person transitioning from the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, the prospects are bleak for youth attempting to reenter their communities, and this area of need represents an opportunity for leaders to act.

  • Only half of states track recidivism data of youth involved with the juvenile justice system, and only 20% of states track the outcomes of youth after they leave the juvenile justice system. This lack of information leads to uninformed policy decisions about what works to improve the outcomes of youth involved in the justice system.
  • 70 – 85% of justice-involved youth do not earn a high school diploma or GED equivalent (while committed or after release), making them more vulnerable to recidivism, unemployment, and limited educational opportunities.

These data points highlight the challenges of reentry for youth and decision-makers. Without effective ways to measure and track recidivism of justice-involved youth, states, localities, and programs that serve them will be ill-equipped to make decisions leading to positive outcomes. Further, lack of consistent data on the outcomes of justice-involved youth makes it nearly impossible for states and localities to understand the effectiveness of existing programs and interventions. Most alarming is the low educational attainment of this population. Limited opportunity for education for youth during and after involvement leads to fewer positive outcomes upon reentry.

States and communities have addressed the problems of referrals to the juvenile justice system and conditions of involvement. Still, there is a tremendous need and opportunity to support youth as they leave the juvenile justice system and reenter their communities. This conversation should be centered on the belief that these young people are not simply transitioning out of a system, but transitioning to opportunities in education, the workforce, and ultimately independent adulthood.

In the next blog post, AYPF will explore ways that policymakers and others are addressing the critical point of reentry and transition back to the community for youth involved in the justice system.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.