Casey Foundation Effort Aims to Half Incarceration of Juveniles

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation is commencing a new juvenile justice initiative aimed at reducing juvenile incarceration by 50 percent in 10 years, beginning with the release of a report that makes the case for such a drastic reduction.

“An avalanche of research has emerged over the past three decades about what works and doesn’t work in combating juvenile crime,” stated the report “No Place for Kids,” written by freelance reporter Richard Mendel for the Baltimore-based foundation. “We now have overwhelming evidence showing that wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a counterproductive public policy.”

Bart Lubow, Casey’s director of programs for high-risk youth, said the foundation will begin work next year with a series of states where officials want to make policy shifts that will affect their reliance on youth correctional facilities.

“The report marks the launch of an extended period of work intended to limit youth incarceration and replace it with a dispositional system that will work better and  produce better results,” Lubow said in an interview with Youth Today.

The foundation will employ a strategy similar to the one it used for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which uses the development of a risk assessment to help states, counties and cities reduce their reliance on juvenile detention centers, where some youths are held before facing a judge.

As with JDAI, Lubow said, Casey will begin with intensive work in a handful of counties and, once functional models have been developed, provide technical assistance as statewide reform becomes possible.

Among the focal points of the project, he said, will be “changes that narrow the pipeline of cases coming into court, … improving community-based options,” and ensuring that “the right kids are in the right programs.”

A number of states, most notably California and Texas, have drastically reduced the number of juveniles confined in large state facilities in the past five years. Closure of some facilities has followed in both states, and neither experienced an uptick in juvenile arrests as they relied on less incarceration.

“That was done in the absence of genuine national consensus,” Lubow said. “Part of what we hope to do is give some coherence” to the push for less incarceration.

Today’s report pieces together established research to explain why some states should rethink the extent to which they use secure confinement. It focuses on five main points:

Safety: Fifty-seven lawsuits against juvenile justice systems in the U.S. have resulted in court-ordered action, and 52 included allegations of “systemic problems with violence, physical or sexual abuse by facility staff and/or the excessive use of isolation or restraint.” In 46 of the lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged an excessive reliance on isolation and restraints to control juvenile populations.

Effectiveness: Recidivism calculations vary from state to state. The report charts available recidivism figures from two dozen states, and some of the figures are dismal. A New York study of incarcerated boys found that 83 percent had been re-arrested for a felony offense within three years of release; three-year measures of returns to correctional custody in six states yielded recidivism rates between 16 percent and 62 percent.

Misuse: While the public and most lawmakers presume that incarceration is used for the most serious juvenile offenders, just 26 percent of the 150,000 juveniles placed in residential programs during 2007 committed a violent index offense.

Better, Cheaper Alternatives: Evidence-based programs such as Multisystemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy have emerged as more effective and less expensive alternatives for juveniles, the report stated. In Florida, a redirection initiative that sent nearly 3,000 juveniles to such programs instead of secure or residential confinement yielded $41.6 million in savings.

The average cost of incarcerating a youth is about $80,000 per year, according to an estimate by the American Correctional Association.

Lack of Services: Drawing mostly from responses to the Justice Department’s 2010 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, the report stated that most facilities fail to provide adequate education programs, mental health treatments and substance abuse interventions.

“You hear about all of this in different strands: the ineffectiveness of institutionalization and declining numbers in some states,” said Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of probation for New York City, who had read the report. “This report makes you see the sum of the parts, so it’s added value in that sense.”

The report recommends the priorities Lubow mentioned for Casey’s forthcoming initiative, specifically, limiting the universe of charges for which incarceration can be an option, and realigning the financial structure of juvenile justice systems such that more funding flows to community-based alternatives. The report also recommends that states with large prison-like secure buildings replace them with smaller ones designed for treatment.

Lubow said Casey has no intention of pushing a specific threshold of offenses for which incarceration is an option in any state.

“That’s not our role, nor do I think any [system] would put much stock in our opinion,” Lubow said. “What we are saying is: Right now, we have gone way to the extreme in terms of locking up low-risk and high-need cases.”

This story originally appeared in Youth Today.

Photo credit: Richard Ross

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