Although the population of youth locked up in America plunged by two-thirds between 2000 and 2018, the country stubbornly continues to lead the world with its rate of 60 per 100,000, according to a new report.
Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence supports the effectiveness of community-based services and programs that heal trauma, according to the report by the Square One Project: Reimagine Justice.
If a kid gets in trouble with the law and feels as if she’s being treated as a “bad” person or a criminal, she tends to internalize those feelings, the report states. But youth who perceive that authorities want to help figure out what’s bothering them and how they might be able to fix it, stand a good chance of avoiding the lifelong, debilitating and self-defeating “learned helplessness” that accompanies incarceration.
It’s crucial to both children and society to understand that the roots of socially unacceptable behavior is often a result of poverty, violence, racism, neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation — and not some innate flaw that can’t be corrected.
And yet, the heart of the Square One study, titled “Learned Helplessness, Criminalization, And Victimization In Vulnerable Youth,” is the conclusion that most of the American youth justice system continues to fall back on the old, punitive system.
The report found that:
- Only 11 states have fully integrated the lessons of the scientific research and emphasize solely restorative justice principles in their youth laws and policies. These states, the researchers wrote, attempt to hold youth accountable by getting them involved with community work while offering them community-based treatment and rehabilitation services rather than locking them up. Schools may be the ideal setting to administer these programs.
- Seven states use what they call a “balanced approach that includes a combination of regular youth justice policies with the inclusion of traditional accountability practices, community work, treatment and care, and rehabilitation services.”
- Twenty states approach juvenile justice with a mix of “balance and restorative justice.”
The report concludes that a more punitive approach to youth justice remains deeply embedded in U.S. culture, with tragic consequences, while the science behind restorative justice continues to meet with some resistance.
“Yet restorative justice will not be fully embraced until the US legal system fundamentally shifts from punitiveness to accountability and rehabilitation. Restorative justice should be understood not as a ‘program,’ but as a reconceptualization of our moral imperatives — specifically in adjudication and sentencing and, more generally, in our communal obligations to each other.”
A few numbers from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention demonstrate the scope of the current problem, according to the authors. There were 37,5129 youth living in detention facilities in the United States in 2018. Three thousand four hundred youth were held in adult jails (mostly facing charges as adults), and 699 were held in adult state prisons, for a total of 41,628 criminal justice system-involved youth.
A year earlier, more than two-thirds of youth in custody were 17 or older, but about 500 were younger than 13.
Report author Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo said society should stop forcing vulnerable young people to resort to “survival skills.”
“We can give them what they need to change, grow, and thrive,” said Trejos-Castillo, a professor of human development and family sciences at Texas Tech University. “Challenging the life trajectories of vulnerable young people starts with listening directly to those young people. Only when their voices come to the center can we begin to ensure safe, healthy, and thriving lives for them.”