Why Juvenile Justice Reform Is Necessary to Restore Opportunity to Youth

04/25/2016 06:56 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2017

We know that youth disconnection has a negative impact on a community's ability to expand access to opportunity. The lower the rate of youth disconnection, as measured by the Opportunity Index, the higher a community's Opportunity Score. When our youth do well, our communities do well.

One of the groups most at risk for disconnection from critically important education and career pathways are the millions of young adults who have spent time in the juvenile or adult justice systems.

Each day in the United States, 2.2 million people are incarcerated, including one million young Americans under the age of 30. An estimated 200,000 youth under the age of 18 are sent into the adult criminal justice system each year, often for misdemeanor offenses. Approximately 60,000 teens are held in juvenile detention facilities on any given day in this country.

These young adults face a host of barriers to their reentry into the community. The stigma of incarceration can carry throughout their life from finding a place to live to securing a job. These youth are the most disconnected from opportunities, relationships, and experiences that are critical to helping them rebuild their lives, putting them at a huge disadvantage.

Research shows that young adults involved in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately low income and minority, are diagnosed with learning disabilities, and have experienced abuse and other forms of hardship.

This issue affects all of us. Our communities and businesses all pay the price for youth disconnection in wasted talent, diminished communities, lost earnings and tax revenues, and increased social services.

Guided by bipartisan, cross-sector solutions that work across the country, Opportunity Nation created a plan: Restoring the American Dream: A Presidential Plan to Expand Opportunity. This plan identifies 12 actions the next president can take, including reforming the broken juvenile justice system.

It will take all sectors coming together to reform our system. We are seeing cross-sector collaboration play out across the country every day. Policymakers, educators, law enforcement, and community organizations are more focused than ever on changing laws to prevent juveniles from entering the adult justice system, ensuring that post-adjudicated youth get the chance to gain skills, reforming outdated sentencing guidelines, and assisting young adults with re-entry into their communities after confinement.

Roca is an organization striving to help youth stay out of jail, get good jobs and create better futures for themselves. They combat recidivism by helping young adults who have been involved in the juvenile or adult justice systems reenter their communities and gain valuable life and job skills.

Roca recently released a report, Pioneers in Young-Adult Justice, which highlights 10 innovative programs that are helping to guide and support young adults to successfully transition to back to their communities, reduce recidivism, and promote long-term positive youth outcomes. The report shows policymakers what works to promote successful reentry for youth who are in the juvenile justice system.

This work isn't easy. Recidivism rates for youth involved in the system have remained persistently high. However, reforming the system would prevent youthful mistakes from becoming life long barriers to opportunity and help young adults get back on track to the American Dream.