Lock ’em up: Mass incarceration and the juvenile justice system

By Melanie Wilmoth

A report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation explores the impact of juvenile corrections on American youth and brings to light many of the flaws in the U.S. juvenile justice system.

Mass incarceration is not just a problem faced by adults in the system. Juveniles face similar rates of over-incarceration with over 60,000 American youth being held in correctional facilities. In addition, mirroring the adult justice system, youth of color are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system.

Interestingly, the mass incarceration of youth is largely a U.S. problem. Although many other developed countries are similar to the US in their rates of youth arrests, they have substantially lower youth incarceration rates:

“A recently published international comparison found that America’s youth custody rate (including youth in both detention and correctional custody) was 336 of every 100,000 youth in 2002 —nearly five times the rate of the next highest  nation (69 per 100,000 in South Africa).”

There are many alternatives to incarceration that are more effective in rehabilitating youth and reducing overall crime rates, and the findings in this report suggest that other countries have found ways (other than mass incarceration) to address juvenile delinquency.

If this is so, why does the U.S. continue to lock up juveniles at such alarming rates?

The Casey Foundations suggests several reasons:

  • Politics. Most elected officials tend to avoid the issues surrounding juvenile incarceration for fear of being seen as “soft on crime.”
  • Economics. Many communities rely on juvenile correctional institutions to boost their economies and stimulate job growth.
  • Lack of Alternatives. Although alternatives to youth incarceration exist, most states have not implemented these programs, leaving no (or very few) alternatives to youth incarceration.

This report goes on to suggest that there are six major flaws in U.S. juvenile corrections: Juvenile corrections are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful, and inadequate.

Dangerous. Violence, physical and sexual abuse, and maltreatment are not uncommon in juvenile corrections facilities. In Texas alone, over 750 complaints of sexual abuse were filed between the years 2000 and 2007.

Ineffective. States continue to have high rates of juvenile recidivism. Moreover, having been in the juvenile justice system increases the likelihood that youth will end up in the criminal justice system as adults.

Unnecessary. The majority of kids in juvenile corrections institutions are low-risk youth who have committed non-violent crimes. Therefore, we are locking up thousands of youth who do not pose an immediate threat to public safety and could easily (and more effectively) be treated in community-based programs.

Obsolete. Research suggests that evidence-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration are more effective in reducing recidivism and lowering crime rates. So why do we continue to rely on a system of mass incarceration that is less effective and more costly than alternatives?

Wasteful. Locking up our kids costs significantly more than implementing community-based programs and other alternatives to incarceration.

Inadequate. Most juvenile corrections facilities do not provide the services youth need such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, educational programs, vocational training, and support services to help youth transition from incarceration to the community.

“The evidence presented in this report makes clear that, except in cases where juvenile offenders have committed serious crimes and pose a clear and present danger to society, removing troubled and delinquent young people from their homes and families is expensive and often unnecessary—with results no better (and often far worse) on average than community-based supervision and treatment.”

The Foundation gives several suggestions for improving juvenile corrections. They suggest using corrections facilities only for kids who commit serious, violent offenses, investing in alternatives to incarceration (e.g., family based interventions, vocational programs, and mentoring programs), and supporting reforms to juvenile corrections that are data-driven and evidence-based.

Read the full Annie E. Casey Foundation report here.

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