Improving Youth Programming: The Role of Research

Angela Irvine, director of research in the Criminal Justice Division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency,
sat down for this podcast interview after participating in a research roundtable on youth courts that was sponsored
by the Center for Court Innovation and the Lowenstein Family Foundation on July 18, 2012.  Irvine also discusses
research into lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender justice-involved youth.

WOLF:  I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. In this New Thinking
podcast, I’m with Angela Irvine, director of research of the criminal justice division of the National Council
of Crime and Delinquency. And I have the good fortune to have a few minutes with her just as she’s finished
participating in a research roundtable on youth courts that the Center for Court Innovation hosted here today in
Manhattan, at the law firm of Skadden Arps. So thanks, Angela, for taking the time to talk with me.

IRVINE:  Thank you for having me.

WOLF: Are there particular challenges that researchers
face when looking at a justice program geared for youth?

IRVINE:  I’m not sure if
there are different challenges. I think that people, in a lot of ways, have given up on adult criminals. In a lot
of ways I find research on adults challenging because it’s hard to engage a public, or to find a source of sympathy
for adult criminals. I think that what’s actually exciting about doing research in the juvenile justice arena
is that we have the possibility of engaging sympathy for different populations of youth who are engaged in the system.
I think if you look at girls in the juvenile justice system, researchers have done a really good job of sort of highlighting
the links between past traumatic experiences and how that drives young people into the juvenile justice system, and
how therefore we, as a society, need to take responsibility for creating firewalls so that girls who have experienced
trauma don’t end up in the juvenile justice system. And what I’m really interested in, moving forward, is thinking
about ways to engage the public in becoming more sympathetic to boys of color who are in the juvenile justice system
who’ve also experienced trauma.

WOLF:  One thing I hear you saying is that there’s
a greater, perhaps, societal interest in research of justice programs that focus on youth, and that is because it’s
easier to have empathy for youth?

IRVINE:  I think so, yes, compared to adults.

WOLF:  And is it also because there’s this general sense that there’s a greater possibility
of rehabilitation?

IRVINE:  I think that there is so much fear of boys of color, in particular—in
public schools, in public spaces, and so I’m not sure how much the general public thinks about wanting to rehabilitate
that population. In theory I think that the juvenile court system was developed to rehabilitate young people in a
different way than the adult criminal justice system has been, but I think that we’re caught in a little bit of a
quagmire right now. If you look from the ’80s on, I think that that’s when super-predators in urban Chicago,
urban New York, started to take over media. You know –

WOLF:  Like “wilding,” that kind
of thing?

IRVINE:  Yeah, exactly. And I think that it’s really important for us
to sort of stop the fear of those young people, and to try to move back in time, to a time when we really do think
of the juvenile justice system as different than the adult criminal justice system, and a system that does seriously
invest in the rehabilitation of those young people, because they’re all our kids.

And do you think researchers have a role to play in helping to change that orientation? 

Researcher always have a role in identifying which program should be invested in. So if researchers identify programs
that effectively reduce recidivism or improve graduation rates, I think that the government, the federal government,
state governments always justify their investment in programs based on research. I think that it’s really important
to think about who the researchers should be doing this work. I think it’s really important that we try to recruit
researchers of color who come from the neighborhoods where we are arresting most of the people, so that we can have
a richer discussion about what the findings are, but also have a richer discussion about what the possible solutions
are because in my experience, researchers who are more familiar with low-income communities of color come up with
more realistic solutions in terms of effectively changing behavior, essentially.

You’ve done a lot of research with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and they face a number of
problems that make them more likely to offend or get involved in the system. I wonder if you can maybe explain some
of your findings.

IRVINE:  The most important finding is that LGBT youth are over represented
in the system. We surveyed young people at the point of arrest and we found that at that point, 15 percent of young
people disclosed being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, which we believe is a higher percentage than the general
population, though we don’t have an accurate measure of the general population. And if you just aggregate by
what we consider, you know, traditionally consider gender, that’s about 11 percent of boys but 27 percent of girls.
I also think it’s important to remember that we have the same disclosure rates for African-American, Latino,
and white youth. Now, in terms of why LGBT youth are there, our surveys show that LGBT youth were twice as likely
to be removed from their home as children because of conflict with their parents, were twice as likely to be homeless
at some point in time, and then twice as likely to be held in detention for status offenses like running away, or

WOLF:  Your employer, the National Council of Crime and Delinquency, started
a project called Improving Permanency for LGBT Youth, which is trying to build an infrastructure of permanent, competent
housing for LGBT youth.

IRVINE:  So I think that what’s really exciting for me about
this program is that youth who are placed outside of their home are at risk for negative outcomes, no matter who
you are. I think that the data shows that if you are a youth of color, or that if you’re LGBT, you’re less likely
to be placed in a home that can meet your needs because it’s very difficult to identify foster parents of color,
or group homes that can adequately serve the needs of African-American and Latino youth, and LGBT youth. And so what
you see is then youth running away from placement, and then because they’re running away from placement, then they
get elevated to higher levels of placement, and they essentially get anchored into the system.

in each of three counties, Alameda, Orange, and Fresno county, we’re going to be working with task forces and the
goal of all three task forces would be immediately to try to pass anti-discrimination policies because that—the moment
of crisis is when LGBT youth are in juvenile detention centers, and we need to make sure that youth are not discriminated
against, that we deconstruct homophobic sort of systems, what people say, but also how particular gender non-conforming
youth are placed in housing units. But then the next step is to try to dig into these communities and see, what is
the infrastructure?  How many, you know, do we have homes that have been identified as LGBT culturally competent? 
Are there solutions that can be put into place to reunify kids with their families, or with some sort of kin care,
sooner than later?

WOLF:  And will research be playing a role in the development of this
program?  How will researchers be helping inform this process?

IRVINE:  That’s
a really good question. So the project is being managed by Bernadette Brown, who’s a really accomplished attorney
and LGBT advocate. And so she’ll be running the task forces in each of the counties. And then I’ll sit on, as
a researcher, each of the task forces and make sure that we are setting data-collection protocols into place, so
that we can measure outcomes for youth in each of those system.

WOLF:  So let me ask
you about what brought you here, to New York today, from Oakland, California, your home. So you spent the day here
in Manhattan, here at the law firm of Scadden Arps, where we are now in the middle of an incredible thunderstorm.
So the theme of the roundtable discussion was on the topic of youth courts and research. The roundtable itself was
sponsored by the Center for Court Innovation. And I’m wondering now, after the five-hour conversation, you know,
what did you learn from it, and what did you think about youth courts before you arrived and have your attitudes
changed or is it too early to really make any particular declaration?

IRVINE:  I think
that my initial concerns about youth courts is that they were a program that could accidentally pull low-risk youth
into either the juvenile justice system or school disciplinary procedures.

WOLF:  Maybe
I’ll just clarify that youth courts, as we’re talking about them here, are program that train teenagers
to play court-like roles to evaluate cases of their peers, and usually just come up with a disposition—they usually
don’t determine guilt. And some are in schools and some are outside of schools. So I just wanted to say that.
I didn’t want to interrupt you.

IRVINE:  So I think that what—I’m really impressed
by the group of people that were here and I think that what I saw is a real commitment to creating a model that works.
I think that there are really two populations that potentially benefit from youth courts. I think that there are
what are called the respondents, so young people who have gotten in trouble, who are essentially the defendants in
a youth court, and then there are the young people who serve as jurists and judges and bailiffs. And the engagement
of those young people who are involved in the program, and staffing the program, is much longer and the benefits
to those young people are very, very clear. I think that in general these young people develop positive relationships
with the adults who are facilitating the program. I think that you see really high rates of graduation and college
attendance. And I think that what everybody coalesced around was the idea that Jeffrey Butts proposed, which is that
we don’t want to do any harm to the respondents or the defendants in this system. And understanding that is a complicated
process, but I’m really excited to have been a part of a group that really sort of rolled up our sleeves and
thought about, how is it that we can document, or how is it that we can ensure that the respondents or the defendants
have positive outcomes instead of negative outcomes.

WOLF:  These are important questions
because youth courts are sort of gaining popularity, and yet there hasn’t been a whole lot of research about
their efficacy.

IRVINE:  Exactly. I think it’s really, really important that we
be able to posit an effective model. I think that the idea of youth courts is easy to replicate, right, just based
on common sense. And I think that it’s really, really important that we identify elements, potentially effective
elements like peer-to-peer-led courtrooms. That was a variable that came up today that we try to reduce the punitive
nature of those courts, perhaps not even calling them courts anymore, that we think about healing and stopping the
cycle of trauma, so that we create—intentionally create what I want to call systems, or structures of those youth
courts that make young people feel comfortable and forgiven by their peers.

WOLF:  Well
listen, thank you so much Angela.

IRVINE:  Thank you.

I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk with me. I’ve been speaking with Angela Irvine, who’s
the director of research of the criminal justice division of the National Council of Crime and Delinquency. And her
office is based in Oakland, although the National Council has offices in several locations. If you want to learn
more about some of her work, you can go to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s website which is And to find out more about youth courts or about the Center for Court Innovation, please go to You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes. You can follow us on Facebook as well, and
on Twitter. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you for listening.

July 2012