Youth prisons don’t work, yet on any given day, over 50,000 youth are in them or other out-of-home placements due to their involvement with the juvenile justice system.
Overwhelming evidence shows that youth prisons are harmful, ineffective and excessively expensive. Youth in prison are routinely subjected to maltreatment – including solitary confinement and physical abuse – which can exacerbate trauma, limit learning, and lead to future recidivism. While the delinquent acts committed by youth serving sentences in youth prisons require an appropriate and measured response, research shows us that prison does nothing to rehabilitate and prevent future crime. A change in response by adults is needed.
The release of The National Collaboration for Youth’s new report, Beyond Bars Keeping Young People Safe at Home and Out of Youth Prisons, offers a better response to youth who engage in delinquent acts. Beyond Bars advocates for systems and communities to shift from a facility-based juvenile justice system to a community-based system by developing a vast array of services and supports that can meet the needs of young people in their communities while also building on their strengths.
The array of services available within every juvenile justice system should include alternatives to arrest, alternatives to out-of-home placement, and aftercare that can hasten return home from a placement. Beyond Bars articulates how a continuum of care should be designed to promote public safety and youth accountability but also should focus on developing a young person’s strength, identifying and meeting needs and restoring a sense of belonging to community.
Beyond Bars provides five guiding principles to creating a continuum that includes such important tenets as using “credible messengers” to work with youth. These “messengers” are people from the community who have a knack for working with youth, know the culture, resources and strengths of their neighborhoods, and can help young people and families navigate through difficult situations. Such support legitimizes a system’s true intentions to reunite youth with their communities in a way that can decrease a youth’s chance to committing a new crime.
Some states and counties are already rethinking alternatives to incarceration. For example, Lucas County, Ohio, spent the last two decades utilizing new strategies to decrease detention, incarceration, out-of-home placement and limit the number of youth sent to juvenile prison. Lucas County used nationally recognized techniques such as The Positive Youth Justice Framework and utilizing caring mentors from the Youth Advocate Program to successfully move from a compliance-based system to a system that promotes positive interventions with opportunities for youth to learn while doing. Youth are still held accountable and the court utilizes restorative justice and evidence-based practices.
Youth confinement has not worked for young people, as demonstrated in another recent report by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the National Institutes of Justice. We know that incarcerated youth are re-arrested within two to three years of release, and there is mounting evidence that youth incarceration may increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Instead of pumping millions of dollars into approaches that have a negative effect on youth and public safety, Beyond Bars proposes a common-sense approach to what youth and communities really need to ensure successful rehabilitation. At a time where states and counties face budget shortfalls, now is the time to be intentional in juvenile justice reform and Beyond Bars delivers a step-by-step guide on how to do this effectively.
Carmen Daugherty is the policy director for the Youth First Initiative.