OP-ED: Incarceration is Only One Piece of a Rational, Effective Juvenile Justice System

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A visitor from another planet – or even another country – who reviewed the juvenile justice system in most states, might conclude that we are committed to continuing crime through our addiction to incarceration.

The overwhelming lessons of science and experience should be enough to convince policymakers to use detention, jail or prison as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. Instead, most states perpetuate large punitive institutions at great cost even though best practices demonstrate that local community-based, family-involved treatment is more effective at reducing juvenile crime. Imprisonment fails as a strategy to rehabilitate because it seldom changes behavior except to worsen it.

I do not mean that incarceration is never necessary nor that any state should ignore the need for swift action to remove a kid from the public in exigent circumstances. And I don’t mean that any kid should not be held accountable for his or her criminal actions.

But our juvenile justice systems should be held accountable also – to increase public safety through attention to the individual circumstances of a child in conflict with the law.

Why do we continue to rely on prisons? Partial answers point to ignorance, stereotypical mindsets and because reform advocates haven’t given policymakers a rational, reasoned argument for a different system.

Unfamiliarity with relevant science and practice is somewhat understandable in a law-based environment. Law schools teach the process and art of making decisions and cannot cover all the fact-based situations that come before the court. Stereotypical approaches are human phenomenon that give our brains shortcuts to making decisions – useful but inappropriate for a legal system which must protect individual rights of both victims and the accused.

Examples of this type of thinking came in comments recently from a deputy sheriff and a former prosecutor. They each said, “a kid who is 16, 17 and 18 is a young adult; they know right from wrong and must be held accountable for their voluntary actions.” The trouble with that statement is that brain development science now clearly shows that most kids of this age have difficulty exercising impulse control even though they can clearly state what good behavior is; that their behavior is enormously affected by peers and that they cannot consider the consequences of their actions in such a way as to alter their impulsive behavior.

Moves toward a different juvenile system can be seen in states like Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and my home state of Illinois. These states are revising spending practices in the fiscal structures relative to juvenile prison and reducing the types of crimes – like misdemeanors – that cannot result in imprisonment.

However, sending fewer kids to prison is only one step on the path to a rational, competent and effective system. What follows is a list of some necessary components – means to the ends of greater public safety, positive outcomes for kids in conflict with the law and greater fiscal responsibility.

  • Data. The system often doesn’t have research data or ignores it. Instead, it relies upon shorthand formulas, such as bright-line rules like “three strikes and you are out of society and into prison.” Real world information about the characteristics of the juvenile population is needed at all decision points in the system.

  • Restorative justice. Crime creates real harm to real people, not just an infraction against state rules. The offender, the victim and the community must be included.

  • Leadership. Someone in the system has to stand up and say, “We can do better.”

  • Collaboration. Nobody does anything alone – people in top management and line-staff must talk to each other and make joint decisions about what works.

  • Training. Creating a common vocabulary and a common understanding of juvenile characteristics, science and effective practices requires training at all levels.

  • Screening and assessment. To make good decisions about what is best for a youth, we need to determine the strengths and needs in a kid’s life and individual risk levels.

  • Results-based contracting. Private businesses and nonprofit agencies brought in to help youth must be told what outcomes are required and be held accountable.

  • Local governance. Those affected by our systems  – practitioners, policymakers, taxpayers, family members and victims  – must be involved in setting effective policy.

This list is not complete, is not applicable in the details to every community and is not a statement of principles, which every community or state should have to guide change. It is a starting point toward moving away from the failed policy of relying on incarceration to reduce crime. Needless incarceration does not work to change behavior; it often leads to greater crime; and it costs too much money.  We can do better.

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