By Alexis Stern, Sarah Guckenburg, and Colleen Carter of the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center. This article was originally published by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy in the Fall 2022 edition of Translational Criminology.

Research ideas often reflect a combination of researchers’ interests and external sources, such as requests for proposals issued by government agencies, foundations, or other funders. In responding to these and other funding opportunities, researchers rely on prior research and information from program administrators to determine gaps in knowledge and how research questions, methods, and analyses can help fill those gaps. For these reasons, research topics and designs typically reflect funders’ or researchers’ agendas and biases (Chicago Beyond, 2018). Rarely is research informed by the voices of the people whose lives our work intends to affect.

However, when researchers do not engage individuals with lived experience in our partnerships and decision-making, we may reproduce inequities, miss out on critical expertise and guidance, and risk producing work that lacks value and relevance for communities. The problem is especially acute for the most vulnerable and systemically marginalized populations, including those whose lives have been directly impacted by the juvenile justice system. While young people who interact with the justice system may be recruited as participants in research, they are rarely sought out for their perspectives on what research should look like and what goals studies should meet.

Initiating and maintaining such partnerships can be challenging for researchers and evaluators. Too often, we work in isolation from local communities and lack the funding to support time spent initiating and maintaining authentic, responsive, and trusting relationships with people outside our professional worlds. However, some community groups and advocates have long recognized that sharing power and control over research with community members is a crucial component of—not an obstacle to—high-quality research.

In the juvenile justice field, community-driven research has generated important insights about young people’s and families’ experiences with the juvenile justice system and opportunities to improve outcomes for those most directly affected by it (examples include reports by Community Connections for Youth & United Playaz of New York, Justice for Families, and Leaders Organizing 2 Unite & Decriminalize). Research evidence also shows that the inclusion of community voices in evaluation efforts has improved interventions and saved countless dollars devoted toward strategies that would not otherwise be culturally responsive or relevant in those communities (Balazs & MorelloFrosch, 2013; Cook, 2008).

In recent years, a growing cohort of national funders and others (see the Equitable Evaluation Initiative) have built on that work to further promote the application of participatory and equitable research and evaluation.

Hearing From People Who Know the System Best

Eighteen months ago, WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center began a needs-sensing project to inform our research and evaluation work in juvenile justice. Our goal was to build on existing work by communities around the country by talking with young people (ages 18–24) who have had personal experience interacting with the juvenile justice system and with practitioners who work with young people. In addition to collecting data, we hoped this project would be an opportunity to build relationships with young people interested in developing their own research skills and potentially partnering with us in future research.

Recruiting young people and practitioners to participate in this project involved multiple outreach strategies and continuous followups. Seven WestEd staff, including four outside the research team, helped identify and introduce us to contacts at organizations and agencies around the country that work with young people impacted by the juvenile justice system. In some cases, it took months, especially during the height of the COVID pandemic, to build relationships with those contacts, obtain buy-in from the organizational leadership at their respective agencies, connect with practitioners providing direct services, and then follow up with any young people they referred. In several cases, these contacts put in substantial time and effort to support the project. At least two young adult participants were referred by friends or relatives who also completed interviews.

Considering the trauma that many young people face in their interactions with the juvenile justice system, we did not ask the young adults who participated in this project to share anything about their personal lives or experiences, although some did voluntarily share personal stories. Instead, we asked participants to share their overall perspectives on the juvenile justice system, including what challenges exist and what improvements could be made to the system. We also asked participants to think about topics for research and how researchers might collaborate with them on future studies.

A total of 30 interviews were conducted in two rounds between October 2020 and August 2021. We used open-ended questions so participants could self-identify their gender, racial, and ethnic identity. In total, we interviewed 19 young adults of various ages, gender, racial, and ethnic identities. We also interviewed 11 practitioners, also of various identities.

All data was collected via phone, email, or virtually over Zoom. Each participant received a $25 gift card for their time speaking with us. In addition, interested participants were invited to review draft findings and were given an additional $25 gift card for reviewing or providing feedback on a draft report. Five young adults and three practitioners who participated in interviews also provided feedback on the findings. An additional focus group of young people who are members of a county-level juvenile justice youth advisory council and have personal experience with the juvenile justice system provided feedback on preliminary findings. Most participants said that they would be interested in participating in future studies.

What We Heard

Several clear themes emerged from the interviews with both youth and practitioners. Notably, they both largely agreed on their perspectives of the juvenile justice system and on the potential for young people to create positive changes in the system. Most consistently, we heard from participants about the importance of elevating young people’s voices as experts and advocates in the juvenile justice system.

Young adult participants particularly emphasized the system’s failure to recognize young people’s dignity and capacity for growth. Practitioners highlighted the ubiquity of racism and inequities in the juvenile justice system and the need for more investment in families, schools, and community-based services. Participants shared their perceptions of the deep and lasting impacts of interactions with the juvenile justice system on young people, families, and communities, as well as the value of education, counseling, and other supports for young people.

Young people and practitioners shared several recommendations for how researchers can effectively, meaningfully, and supportively engage young people in research. Many of the people who spoke with us had limited experience as participants, consumers, or producers of research. However, their recommendations reflect our own experiences of what was successful in this project and strategies for a participatory, equity-centered approach to research and evaluation.

Participants’ recommendations extended to recruitment, data collection, and dissemination strategies. For instance, participants emphasized the importance of making research relatable, meaningful, and accessible to young people, including respecting and actively accommodating their schedules, communication preferences, and personal interest in the work so they can be involved in research activities in the ways they prefer. They recommended soliciting feedback, providing fair compensation, and engaging outside a researcher’s typical working hours.

These and other recommendations resonated with our own experiences. A notable example was the participants’ recommendation that researchers invest in and leverage relationships to connect with young people impacted by the juvenile justice system. Outreach for this project depended heavily on our relationships with practitioners and practitioners’ relationships with young people. Without these trusting relationships, this project would not have been possible.

A New Agenda for Juvenile Justice Research and Evaluation

Insights shared by participants provided a valuable framework for how researchers can approach partnerships with young people—and with all stakeholders—in our work. This includes engaging interested young people earlier in the design process and supporting their ability to collect and analyze data, interpret findings, co-author reports and presentations, and authentically drive these and other aspects of the research process. Unfortunately, the pandemic limited this project to virtual interactions. Still, future work in which researchers and young people can work together in person to collaborate, share ideas, and reflect on findings would strengthen this approach.

Participants’ recommendations have also helped us identify future research directions to improve the juvenile justice system. These included studying how young people are treated inside the system, evaluating the effectiveness of programs to heal and stabilize youth, documenting inequities and causes of inequities in the system, and including young people in guiding system reforms.

We want to thank all the participants who contributed to this project and our WestEd colleagues for their support, introductions to their networks, advice, and feedback. As we reflect on how this work can improve the juvenile justice system, we know this is only the beginning. Researchers, community organizations, and system leaders need to move toward deeper collaborations with young people to shift the power dynamic and change how the system works.

While research alone cannot produce systems change, it can create pathways for new voices to join public conversations about issues that matter to all of us. We hope that in this project and our future work, we can offer a platform for young people and others with lived experience in the juvenile justice system to have their voices heard.

The WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center collaborates with partners in funding, implementing, and evaluating programs that promote positive youth development, physical health and well-being, and prevention of risk behaviors, including violence. Learn more.