Public Opinion Research Findings
Below are valuable insights from the opinion research to consider relative to framing and messaging.
There Is an Overall Sense That Crime has Increased and Public Safety in the U.S. Is Getting Worse (March 2022)
- Six out of 10 people believe public safety has been the same in their communities, but believe crime is on the rise elsewhere.
- Seven in 10 think crime overall and crime committed by youth in the U.S. has increased.
- Additionally, over half of respondents feel public safety has gotten worse.
- The majority of people believe public safety is worse due to the justice system.
- Sixty-one percent of respondents believe the criminal justice system is a revolving door.
The Juvenile Justice System Is Considered “Broken” by Many and a Precursor to the Criminal Justice System
Many believe that the juvenile justice system is “broken” at several levels — some perceiving it to be too harsh while others believing it to be too lenient. They view it as an “entry point” to the criminal justice system since little rehabilitation is taking place. Overall sentiment is that kids who enter the juvenile system will often end up in the criminal system. Fewer than half of respondents feel the system is working “just right,” and more than half believe it needs reform. In the words of respondents:
- “I feel the JJ system itself is corrupted and a broken system. Not much is making a difference or hav[ing] an impact on the greater good for society and their fellow youth.”
- “While I believe the juvenile justice system works in some places, we would be lying to ourselves if we didn't realize that it needs to be fixed, or at the very least set the same standards in every part of the country.”
Race Is a Key Driver of Inequities
Almost all respondents agree that Black, Latino and Native American youth are treated differently than white youth. They are often given harsher sentences and treatment within the system. They are incarcerated or detained at higher rates and have less access to resources such as lawyers. Overall, respondents consider the juvenile justice system to be unfair and have witnessed little change over time. There is a growing sense of frustration and anger around the lack of change.
- Ninety-two percent of respondents agree that youth of color are treated differently in the juvenile justice system than white young people.
- Income is also recognized as a driver of bias in the system, with respondents believing that outcomes and treatment of youth in the system are affected by family and community income.
- There is still a significant disagreement on who should be held responsible. Many Americans fault families and low-income communities rather than the juvenile justice system as a whole.
There is an understanding that the punishment does not always fit the crime
Although there were contrasting responses among participants on the responsibilities of the court and police, there is a general sense that police and/or courts play an inflated role in the juvenile justice system, entering the picture before other solutions are sought. Many respondents talk about the environment in which they grew up, and they think that the juvenile justice system is harsher today.
- “Things like zero tolerance seem to cause some to get in trouble for minor lapses of judgment.”
- “...youth may get in trouble more for things they got away with 10 years ago, e.g., bullying, making threats or bringing weapons to school, etc.”
- “Police have a lot less latitude to make on-the-spot decisions nowadays.”
There is a belief that youth can change, but they need rehabilitation and consequences
Most respondents believe that young people can change paths. They believe young people need mentorship, community and family support, and, in some cases, counseling to do so. The public does not believe that youth will outgrow problematic behaviors if they are left alone and given time to mature. Many respondents also believe that race drives access to rehabilitative and constructive alternative approaches in the juvenile justice system.
It’s important to note that an overwhelming majority of people (86%) believe that the juvenile justice system should focus on rehabilitation to keep youth from getting permanently caught in the system for repeat offenses.
- There is a general aversion toward “doing nothing” and more support for a hybrid approach of “consequences” and “assistance.” People believe that the juvenile justice system — in an ideal world — should be able to accomplish this.
- Most respondents feel that an effective juvenile justice system SHOULD:
- provide second chances to youth to help them rehabilitate;
- acknowledge and believe that “youth can change” if given the opportunity;
- make stronger efforts to stop “the revolving door” of kids entering and re-entering the justice system without any real rehabilitation; and
- not “let kids off the hook” completely — there is a sense that doing nothing will create future or repeat offenses.
One important exception is that most believe violent behavior by youth should be addressed quickly to “break the habit.” Slightly more than one-third of people (35%) still believe removal from the community to a secure facility is an appropriate deterrence from future violence. Mitigating this belief will be a long-term effort, as perception change can take multiple years.
However, a plurality of people (43%) believe that youth should receive interventions to gain self-control and long-term behavior change in the community. They agree that “acting out in a violent way as a youth does not necessarily mean a person will become a violent adult.” We suggest a combination of messages and data that, with repetition and explanation over time, will move public opinion. This content could include:
- education about youth brain development and impulse control issues;
- data that show how many youths charged with violent offenses are not recharged; and
- promotion of restorative justice as an opportunity for meaningful consequences and the development of empathy.
A Majority of the Public Agree Youth Need to Be Supported by Community Resources
- Eighty-six percent of respondents agree that when young people are connected to things like sports, work, school and community, they are less likely to get in trouble with the law. They feel that some young people need more support in making those positive connections, especially in communities.
- Eighty-three percent of respondents believe young people should be diverted to community-based alternatives that provide guidance, education and support, especially if there is no safety risk to themselves or to their community.
- Sixty-four percent of respondents believe most young people who break the law can be held accountable by their families and communities and can be connected to appropriate community resources, such as counselors, mentors and coaches who support them in learning from their mistakes.
Adultification Is a Perception Problem That Significantly Hurts Youth of Color, Who Are Often Viewed as Being Older Than Their True Age
There is clearly an age (around 17) at which the public loses its patience and hardens its stance against second chances. Adultification is compounded by race and socioeconomics. Youth of color and those from lower socioeconomic levels are often viewed as being older than their white and more privileged counterparts. This bias leads to harsher sentences and life-changing consequences for youth of color. There is a clear need to educate the public on normal adolescent behaviors — informed by developmental research — and to create understanding that support is needed beyond age 18.
- Eighty-four percent of respondents agree that the juvenile justice system tends to treat some kids as adults.
Restorative Justice and Diversion Are New Ideas to Many, Even the Informed Public
While received in a positive light, restorative justice and diversion feel like “new” or “alternative” approaches within the juvenile justice system. As such, examples and facts/figures associated with these approaches are important.
- Many position restorative justice as an alternative to a wide range of system involvement.
- Many believe that restorative justice would be appropriate for “lesser crimes,” but would not work for most violent or serious crimes.
- Some respondents believe that the idea of restorative justice is close to “restitution” for the person harmed but does not always help to rehabilitate the person who caused harm.
- While most believe that this process could help to mitigate racial inequities, they are also skeptical that the approach would be applied equally across racial and socioeconomic classes.
- Many are unaware of the term “diversion,” but would understand it better as “court diversion.” While this is a somewhat vague term that doesn’t convey pre-arrest diversion from courts to community-based responses, it serves the purpose of communicating the goal of keeping youth “out of the system.”
- Many had not previously heard this term, and it appears as if they needed/wanted more detail in the description, demonstrating a need for education about the concept.
- Some mention diversion being “a slap on the hand” or “light punishment.”
- Many believe that this could help reduce racial inequities but that it is not always offered equally.
- Many respondents believe that youth of color would be more likely to be sent to detention than be offered diversion.
Consequences Remain an Important Part of the System for Many
Despite the demonstrated appeal of and support for an approach focused more on rehabilitation, there is still a strong belief that youth who commit crimes must receive some consequences for their actions. Around half of respondents say the goals for the juvenile system should be for youth to “be accountable for their actions” (54%) and “take responsibility for their actions” (49%).
Eight in 10 believe that “being held accountable for their actions within the juvenile justice system ends up helping kids in the long run.” Largely, the support for consequences is linked to the nature of the crime. Across segments, respondents generally agree that violent crimes merit stricter consequences.
Findings and insights informed by the research relative to the objectives of the study:
- Acknowledging the role of race and calling for real efforts to address it are key to garnering support from a growing number of people.
- Recognizing that the public already agrees that the juvenile justice system is failing young people and needs reform. By understanding their concerns and perceptions, we can educate and bring the public along with productive strategies for reform.
- Understanding that restorative justice is a new concept to many Americans, even as it becomes more widely used in many communities. Restorative justice is a practice applied across the criminal justice spectrum, and while not specific to youth justice, it offers promising approaches to youth accountability. It is best described in simple terms, with real-world examples. Consider speaking to it as a balanced approach of restitution and taking responsibility. Focus on the healing benefits of restorative justice — how the person who caused harm can make amends to the person harmed, creating meaningful and appropriate closure for both parties.
- Recognizing that probation is not well understood by the public and that it is seen by many as a beneficial outcome. Any significant effort to appeal to the public for probation reform will require educating them on how it fails young people. There are openings to explore, including the perception of racial and economic bias, as well as the understanding that young people can get swept up into a system from which it’s very difficult to escape as adults.
- Clarifying “diversion” by better describing it. We believe the public would better understand “diversion from courts to community-based responses.” As a new concept for many, the term diversion requires education. As well, supporting the concept with facts and success figures proves to be compelling.
- Understanding that, although there is an overall sentiment that crime has increased, there is still support for community-based responses and restorative justice practices when it comes to probation and system reform.
Advance vs. Avoid
Suggested language to use and lose when discussing youth justice.
“Youth [Justice, Probation] etc.”
“Juvenile [Justice, Probation] etc.”
“Diversion from courts to community-based responses”
“Choices that benefit their future”
“Positive choices” or “Negative choices”
“Positive opportunities, motivation”
“Incentives” or “rewards”
“Punishment”; “Teach them a lesson”
“Person/someone who has been harmed”
“Person/someone who has caused harm”