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Understanding and Supporting Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth: Insights from Our Latest Learnings

Over the past year, we've deepened our understanding of how to effectively support juvenile justice-involved youth. It's easy to feel intimidated or unsure about working with these young individuals who have come into contact with the law. The fact is, to new advocates, some of the cases can look intimidating on paper. But let’s remember, much like the dependency youth many CASA Advocates already support, they are still just kids. The main difference is that the responsibility of closing their case falls directly on them, rather than on their parents or guardians. One of the things we have come to value most about CASA juvenile justice Advocates is their ability to hold space for complexity, so that a young person has the ability to heal, learn, make amends, and move forward in community.

Context Matters

One of the key lessons we've learned is the importance of understanding the broader context of these youths' lives. Many come from underserved communities and face systemic barriers that can seem insurmountable. Historical and social contexts, such as racial discrimination, economic hardship, the rising cost of housing, and inadequate access to quality education play significant roles in their paths. For example, African American and Latino youths are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system due to biases that often start as early as school disciplinary policies. The reality is, however, that justice-involved youth can come from all sorts of walks of life and from all over Santa Cruz County. But even more importantly, each and every youth on probation has equally diverse strengths and demonstrate remarkable resilience, adaptability, and a strong desire for positive change. These qualities can be nurtured and supported through strengths-based intervention to support their personal growth and reintegration back into the community.

Personal Stories Matter

Hearing and sharing personal stories has proven to be an effective way to understand and humanize these youths beyond the statistics. Take Dante*, for instance. He's a 15-year-old Latino boy who got into a fight that involved multiple teens at school. Despite his minimal involvement, he was labeled a “gang-associate” by school officials due to the fact that one of the other teens also involved in the fight had been previously been identified as a gang member. This labeling led to his suspension and eventual involvement in the juvenile justice system. Dante's story shows us how these labels and zero-tolerance policies can unfairly push kids deeper into the system.

Intersectionality of Challenges

Another important lesson is recognizing the complex web of factors these youths face. A single child might be dealing with racial and gender discrimination, economic challenges, and family instability all at once. For instance, a teen from an under-resourced community may not only experience racial biases but also deal with parents who do not accept that their son is LGBTQ+, making them feel invisible or unwelcomed in their own home. Additionally, the lack of adequate educational resources and protective factors may also increase their risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

Restorative Justice: A Path to Healing

A significant insight from this year has been the power of restorative justice principles. This approach focuses on healing and reconciliation rather than just punishment. Imagine a group of teens who vandalized a mural at a local park. Instead of just facing detention or probation, they participate in a discussion with Parks staff and other affected community members. They take responsibility, offer apologies, and help in the restoration of the mural. This approach not only helps them learn the skill of mural painting, but helps them make amends and helps to foster a stronger sense of community and reduces the likelihood of reoffending.

As a CASA Advocate, the role in encouraging restorative justice is crucial and impactful. CASA Advocates can:

  • Promote Empathy: Help these youths understand the impact of their actions on others, nurturing empathy and accountability.
  • Encourage Community Involvement: Advocate for community service opportunities that allow youth to give back and rebuild their connection to the community.
  • Change Hearts and Minds: Help the community understand that justice-involved youth deserve community support, where are the gaps in the juvenile justice system, and advocate for change. As one of 5 juvenile justice CASA programs in the State of California, what CASA Advocates are learning about the juvenile justice system is helping to inform the development of our program here at CASA of Santa Cruz County and informing our advocacy work in the community. 

Embrace Cultural Humility and Lifelong Learning

Another vital lesson we've learned is the importance of cultural humility and being a lifelong learner. We can't train a CASA for every case because every case is unique. No one person can know everything, and that's okay. Embracing cultural humility means respecting the youth’s background and experiences and being open to learning continuously. Our hope is that if you don't know something, ask questions, seek out information, and make a commitment to keep learning. This attitude is essential when walking alongside a young person who is involved in the juvenile justice system. And most importantly, know that you are not alone, you’re part of a team! 

Why It Matters

By promoting a holistic approach to healing, community safety, and justice for victims, CASA Advocates can make a significant difference. Traditional punitive measures often lead to higher recidivism rates. On the other hand, programs focusing on mentorship, vocational training, counseling, and community service have shown to improve the prospects of these youths reintegrating successfully into society.

You Can Make a Difference

As a CASA Advocate, your role is vital. You have the power to foster empathy and understanding, to see these youths as the children they are—kids who need guidance, support, and a chance to turn their lives around. By stepping into their shoes, advocating for restorative practices, and understanding the complexities they face, you can help them navigate their challenges and build better futures.

So, next time you meet a juvenile justice-involved youth, remember: they're just kids, like any other, deserving of a second chance and someone who believes in them. Your advocacy can be the key to unlocking their potential and helping them find their path to a brighter future.

*Fictious Name