Juvenile detention: Why we need alternatives

August 1st, 2014

Making the Problem Worse?

Journalist Nell Bernstein’s new book, “Burning Down the House,” draws from hundreds of interviews with young people in juvenile detention and adults who work in the juvenile justice system. She asserts that research shows that the greatest predictor of an adult ending up in prison is not whether someone was involved in gang activity, has mental illness, or grew up in a certain type of family. Rather, she says, time spent in a juvenile detention facility predicts adult criminality better than any of these factors, even while accounting for the juvenile delinquent behavior itself.

Bernstein is not alone in her concern over juvenile confinement driving more young people toward a life of crime rather than deterring them. Research by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle finds that putting young people in juvenile detention facilities increases the chance that they will commit additional crimes later in life. It also reduces the likelihood that a teenager will finish high school.

Their research was based on comparisons of juvenile court judges in Chicago, some of whom were much more likely than others to place young adults in detention even when the crimes were similar. Young people who were incarcerated were 22 percent more likely to return to prison as adults than were juveniles who were given alternative consequences, such as being monitored at home. The authors hypothesize that this could be true, in part, because young people develop deeper relationships with other young criminals while in detention. Serving time in a detention facility also interrupts school and can make it much more difficult to get a job after release.

Treatment of Young Offenders in Detention

News reports of abuse by guards, unchecked violence among youth inmates, and the overuse of solitary confinement all raise serious concerns about how young people are treated in many detention centers. Last month, Florida governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that criminalizes the abuse and neglect of teens of all ages who are in the custody of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

The Florida legislature was prompted to act because of the death of Eric Perez, an 18-year-old inmate in a Palm Beach juvenile facility. He received blows to the head from guards who later described their activity as “horseplay.” Perez begged for medical treatment for hours before he died. Nine guards were fired after the incident, but none could be charged with a crime because Perez was already 18 years old.

Solitary confinement, many times for up to 23 hours a day in cramped cells, is used as a frequent punishment in many detention facilities. Solitary confinement is “not helpful to kids. It more often exacerbates the problems that kids have,” says Mark Soler of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “Kids with mental health problems often get worse by being put in solitary, and in virtually all situations, it’s unnecessary.”

Community-Based Alternatives to Incarceration

Many experts and advocates working on juvenile justice issues are pressing state and local governments to address low-level offenses with programs that allow teens to remain in their communities rather than be locked up in facilities hours away from their families. These are usually referred to as “community-based alternatives.” They include options such as probation, treatment programs that incorporate families, and restorative justice programs that involve both offenders and victims of crime.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange points out that adolescents’ brains are still developing into their mid-20s, especially the parts of the brain that regulate emotions and the ability to control impulses. For healthy development, young people need the involvement of parents (or adults acting in a parental role) and positive relationships with their peers. Incarceration generally disrupts the chance to work on these relationships.

The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is the most frequently replicated juvenile justice reform program in the country. It works with juvenile justice systems in 250 sites to divert youth from detention centers into community monitoring programs when this approach is appropriate. Evaluation of different program sites in 2009 found that the juvenile crime rate did not rise after implementing community monitoring. Many communities using the JDAI program were able to reduce the number of youth in detention by half, and in many cases the youth crime rate declined. The Casey Foundation states that unfortunately no state in the country has yet invested the resources to fully scale these smaller programs up to the size needed to serve all youth who would be eligible for them.

The Missouri Model: A Different Kind of Youth Detention

Community-based monitoring may be inappropriate for young adults who are truly a danger to others. This doesn’t mean that youth facing detention should have to undergo abuse and unnecessary suffering, however. As many states consider how they can make juvenile detention more humane, they are closely following models in Missouri.

Approximately 30 years ago, Missouri closed all of its training schools, deciding instead to use small group homes, camps, and treatment facilities dispersed throughout the state, where youth could be closer to their home communities. Smaller sites are only the beginning to use Missouri’s unique 3 approach. Young people who are confined undergo extensive group therapy rather than being isolated in solitary cells or being left within large groups to defend themselves against potential violence. Staff are trained to supervise closely the youth in their care, to protect them not only from physical assault but also from emotional and verbal abuse.

During their confinement, teens work on their academic, communications, and vocational skills to prepare for the time after their release. Family members are also involved in the treatment process rather than being ignored or treated as the reason for delinquency. Finally, significant resources are devoted to assisting youth as they transition from confinement back into the community, to help them in enrolling in schools or placing them in jobs.

Missouri’s results from this approach have been impressive. Recidivism rates are much lower among youth who are released from Missouri’s facilities compared with other states. Comparisons of youth-on-youth assault rates within juvenile facilities find that young people are safer in Missouri’s facilities. Analysis has also found that confined juveniles in Missouri generally make more educational progress during their sentence than the national average.

The Role of People of Faith

The scope of the changes that are needed to make juvenile justice systems more humane can be overwhelming. Even just considering the changes that are needed in one young person’s life to move away from crime toward a positive future can be daunting. It is clear that our faith calls us to care for all the children of our communities and to act for justice with them. How can people of faith have an impact with young people and on the justice systems that affect them? A few ideas include:

• Learn more about what young people face in juvenile justice systems through resources such as Nell Bernstein’s “Burning Down the House.”
• Find a faith-based or community ministry in your area that works with young people who are participating in community monitoring programs because of a juvenile offense. Volunteer or offer your financial support.
• Volunteer to be part of an Epiphany Ministry team, an ecumenical group that brings weekend retreats into juvenile justice facilities. The retreats are modeled on the Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry programs.
• Advocate for just and humane reforms to the juvenile justice system through organizations such as the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) and the American Civil Liberties Union, which currently has a campaign to end solitary confinement in federal youth detention. An Internet search for “juvenile justice reform” and the name of your state may help you find local organizations working on these issues.

Perhaps the most essential first step is for people of faith to remind our communities that children who are behind bars are infinitely precious in God’s sight, that their lives have just as much value as those who have not been convicted of crimes. For real change to be possible, we must begin thinking of children in the juvenile justice system in the same ways that we think of our own children: worthy of love and full of possibility.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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