Workforce Development Programs That Work for Youth With Justice-System Experience

Posted June 22, 2022
Young Black man wears a hard hat and hold a hammer; standing on the frame of an unfinished building

Achiev­ing sta­ble employ­ment is a crit­i­cal mile­stone for youth and young adults on the path to adult­hood. But young peo­ple who have been involved in the jus­tice sys­tem — espe­cial­ly for seri­ous offens­es — can face sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers in find­ing and secur­ing employ­ment. Results from a nation­al scan of work­force pro­grams by the Urban Insti­tute iden­ti­fy strate­gies that may help mit­i­gate these challenges.

Key Find­ings from the Nation­al Scan

This research, fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, iden­ti­fies com­mon fea­tures of qual­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty-based work­force devel­op­ment pro­grams serv­ing youth and young adults with crim­i­nal or juve­nile records.

Com­mon Pro­gram Features 

Some of the top-cit­ed fea­tures iden­ti­fied include:

  1. pri­or­i­tiz­ing the abil­i­ty of staff to work with par­tic­i­pants of dif­fer­ent racial and eth­nic backgrounds; 
  2. train­ing staff on pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment strate­gies; and 
  3. coor­di­nat­ing across a wide range of part­ners includ­ing employ­ers, pro­ba­tion offi­cers and judges.

Com­mon Pro­gram Offerings

The five most fre­quent­ly report­ed pro­gram offer­ings aimed at help­ing young peo­ple with jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment were:

  1. job search assistance;
  2. career readi­ness;
  3. employ­er connections;
  4. career plan­ning; and 
  5. job coach­ing.

Marks of a Sup­port­ive Infrastructure

Pro­gram mod­els that pro­vid­ed a sup­port­ive infra­struc­ture for young peo­ple with crim­i­nal records shared the fol­low­ing characteristics:

  • Took indi­vid­u­al­ized, devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate approach­es to meet young peo­ple where they were and built on their strengths.
  • Employed staff who under­stood young people’s expe­ri­ences with trau­ma, men­tal health issues and gen­der differences.
  • Took proac­tive steps to help staff mem­bers con­nect with par­tic­i­pants based on sim­i­lar life expe­ri­ences, such as com­ing from the same neigh­bor­hood or hav­ing a crim­i­nal record.
  • Rec­og­nized that youth might need help sat­is­fy­ing their basic needs (like hous­ing, food and child care) or estab­lish­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and bank accounts as part of work­force participation.
  • Offered wage-sub­si­dized intern­ships, stipends for com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice or tran­si­tion­al jobs.
  • Time-lim­it­ed, sub­si­dized work expe­ri­ences helped young peo­ple build skills and estab­lish a work his­to­ry nec­es­sary for employ­ment while meet­ing their basic finan­cial needs. Such paid oppor­tu­ni­ties are impor­tant, since these young peo­ple may have lim­it­ed resources and lack the finan­cial cush­ion need­ed to pur­sue unpaid opportunities.
  • Con­nect­ed with par­tic­i­pants proac­tive­ly, includ­ing via week­ly check ins and direct out­reach if com­mu­ni­ca­tion stalls.

Promis­ing Practices

The researchers also iden­ti­fied promis­ing prac­tices, including:

  • allow­ing for pro­gram flex­i­bil­i­ty — such as pro­gram length — and indi­vid­u­al­iz­ing sup­port to align with a young person’s inter­ests and goals;
  • col­lab­o­rat­ing direct­ly with employ­ers and in response to the local labor market;
  • being flex­i­ble with fund­ing streams and requirements;
  • col­lect­ing and dis­ag­gre­gat­ing data to iso­late pro­gram strengths and iden­ti­fy areas ripe for improve­ment; and
  • part­ner­ing with pol­i­cy­mak­ers, juve­nile and crim­i­nal jus­tice stake­hold­ers, employ­ers and direct ser­vice providers to fos­ter youth success.

David E. Brown, a senior asso­ciate of the Casey Foun­da­tion, point­ed out that some young peo­ple are jug­gling com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice require­ments, court-imposed fines and unre­solved or out­stand­ing war­rants. Jus­tice-sys­tem involve­ment can be an obsta­cle course for young peo­ple,” he explains.

As Casey con­sid­ers its next phase of invest­ment in this area, the Urban Institute’s scan and report can help iden­ti­fy orga­ni­za­tions pro­vid­ing qual­i­ty work­force devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties to youth and young adults charged with seri­ous offens­es,” says Brown. The research can also aid Casey in pin­point­ing the kinds of orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures, part­ner­ships and col­lab­o­ra­tion that are essen­tial to help­ing young peo­ple with records suc­ceed in the workforce.”

About the Scan

With a 2020 Casey Foun­da­tion grant, the Urban Insti­tute con­duct­ed a scan of work­force and juve­nile jus­tice pro­grams to doc­u­ment how they were deliv­er­ing ser­vices to youth and young adults who have been adju­di­cat­ed for or con­vict­ed of seri­ous offens­es. Using infor­ma­tion gath­ered from a nation­al sur­vey and staff inter­views at 15 com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions, the project aimed to iden­ti­fy efforts nation­wide that effec­tive­ly pre­pared 16- to 24-year-olds for the work­force while pre­vent­ing fur­ther jus­tice sys­tem involvement.

Fol­low­ing a review of rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture, the researchers iden­ti­fied a sur­vey sam­ple of 667 com­mu­ni­ty-based work­force sup­port orga­ni­za­tions that either serve young peo­ple with a his­to­ry of jus­tice involve­ment or do not explic­it­ly exclude them. From March to May 2021, 128 of the orga­ni­za­tions from 41 states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. respond­ed to the sur­vey. Among these orga­ni­za­tions, 20 pro­grams were select­ed to par­tic­i­pate in semi-struc­tured inter­views, and providers from 15 of these pro­grams com­plet­ed interviews.

Relat­ed Resources

Debunk­ing myths on the work­force inno­va­tion and oppor­tu­ni­ty acts youth program

Under­stand­ing the ben­e­fits of work­force expo­sure and career pro­gram­ming for young people

Cre­at­ing edu­ca­tion­al and career path­ways for young people 

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