OP-ED: Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

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Scott HenggellerThe Obama administration officially acknowledged recently what many others have been saying for years. It’s not in students’ or the community’s best interest to have a zero-tolerance school policy that gets youths thrown into the criminal system. As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it, “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”

The goal of how we handle delinquent teens needs to be keeping them out of the juvenile justice system where they are more likely to learn new ways to commit crimes and get into worse trouble. A finding in a study of 1 million Texas students is particularly eye opening. Sixty percent of middle and high school students were suspended or expelled at least once. Many end up with criminal records that follow them through life.

This is a reflection of how abysmally wrong we treat juveniles who commit crimes in the U.S. Zero tolerance is an extension of the attitude that we should get them off the street and lock them up. On any given day, more than 70,000 youths are in juvenile facilities. But is it helpful to put juveniles in with other offenders where they can hone their criminal skills? Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (published as “No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration”) confirmed the negative effects of locking youths up — confinement increases youths’ chances of being rearrested. Spending 24 hours a day for several months around other problem adolescents doesn’t reduce antisocial behavior.

James is the face of the problem. He had two arrests for shoplifting, the second for stealing a $100 set of headphones from a mall. For this the 16-year-old was put on six months probation with conditions. He had to attend school, take a bi-weekly drug test and not break a 10 p.m. curfew. As easy as it might seem to meet these conditions, James didn’t. After violating his probation for a second time by skipping school for a day, his probation officer and the judge felt James needed to be taught a lesson. He was committed to a state-funded residential facility for four months.

This meant he was unlikely to graduate high school on time and was at greater risk for dropping out. The lack of a high school diploma can have negative long-term costs for him and society. A second-string linebacker on the football team and a wrestler, he missed two seasons of team sports and the work ethic, school involvement and pride they can instill. And his single, working mother lost his help with the younger siblings, disrupting the positive aspects of his family relations. Throw into the mix that teachers and neighbors tended to view him more negatively after returning from the residential facility, and his transition back to school and the community was rocky.

Did the months away from home, school and community teach James a lesson? One would tend to doubt it looking at other conclusions from the Casey Foundation. Many youths experience violence, abuse and other forms of maltreatment while confined. Most facilities are not prepared to meet the challenging needs of their wards. So it’s unlikely that he took away anything positive from his detention.

While tremendous resources are devoted to housing troubled youths away from their homes, few are used to help parents provide more effective supervision and discipline when the youth inevitably returns home. Parents, rather than the state, should be primarily responsible for keeping their kids out of trouble and helping them to do well in school and the neighborhood

It should not be forgotten that confinement costs a lot of money. In Maine, that would be $412 a day; in Connecticut, $726 a day. Both are significantly higher than proven alternatives that provide effective services for as low as $70 a day, keeping youths in their homes, schools and communities. Moreover, these proven alternatives have been shown to reduce criminal behavior in the short- and long-term.

Recognizing the high fiscal, social and personal costs of taking an adolescent out of the home environment, many states have worked to reduce their rates of juvenile commitments. For example, from 1997 to 2011, the rates of juvenile commitment have been decreased in Maine and Connecticut by 32 and 79 percent, respectively. Importantly, this was accomplished without jeopardizing community safety.

Like James, the majority of confined youth nationwide were committed for technical violations, status offenses, public disorder or property crimes. Only 34 percent of committed youth were brought up for assault and robbery. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation argues, juvenile commitments should be limited to youth with serious criminal offenses who pose clear risks to public safety. Otherwise, the removal of delinquent youth from their homes, schools and communities is more likely to lead to harm than good. Not a good return on investment.

While zero tolerance might have been grounded on good intentions, it’s bad policy. The Obama administration should be commended for urging its end.

Dr. Scott Henggeler is a professor in the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He is founder of the Family Services Research Center, which focuses on the development, validation and dissemination of effective treatments for youth with serious clinical problems. 

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