OP-ED: Reforming Juvenile Justice Requires Restructuring our Mindset

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With youth crime rates and numbers of incarcerated youths declining, now is the ideal time to review how juvenile incarceration meets the needs of youths, their families and society.

California is in the process of allocating $80 million in funding for counties to build juvenile facilities. To ensure these facilities are rehabilitative, they need to originate from a belief in the capacity for people to change. Psychologists refer to this belief as mindset; it is a well-established phenomenon in education, and is equally applicable to our juvenile justice system.

Mindset applies to everyone. Despite the adverse economic and social backgrounds many incarcerated youth come from, do policymakers believe that, given the right guidance, youths can learn to make better decisions? Do youths believe that, given the right tools, they can develop new skills to help them succeed?

Psychologists have been investigating whether both students and their teachers can develop this positive mindset. The outcomes of interventions designed to achieve this are encouraging.

Parental mindset has been shown to be influential in motivational frameworks for even very young children; parents who praise the effort required to learn and succeed beget those values. Researchers have shown that increasing a belief in the ability to change reduces aggression as retaliation in adolescents by 40 percent; believing that negative traits are not fixed results in less punitive views towards assailants.

Examples of successful educational programs are underpinned by a theory of change that target not just students and teachers, but also families and communities. Furthermore, it is well documented that expectations affect educational outcomes and that assumptions based on stereotypes or cultural misunderstanding may contribute to racial disparity in academic achievement. Looking at consequences of previous juvenile justice practices highlights why fostering a positive mindset is crucial in our treatment of juveniles.

A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute reports that incarcerating a youth can cost $148,767 per year. The most recent publication of the Juvenile Residential Facility Census found that 66,322 people under the age of 21 resided in 2,111 facilities in the U.S., ranging from 26 juveniles in Vermont, to 10,908 juveniles in California. That is a lot of money to pay for incarceration practices that likely increase the risk of recidivism.

In California’s last round of funding for juvenile facilities, all 14 counties that applied for funding received it — hardly a competitive process. Most counties added beds to their existing juvenile halls or camps, or simply replaced existing facilities, thereby perpetuating existing flaws in our juvenile justice system. Addressing previous weaknesses, the revised funding application now requires stronger justification of how facilities will be rehabilitative and includes an appendix on best rehabilitative practices.

I have visited a facility built with 2009 funding and attended several meetings of the working group formed to oversee the funding, the lack of accountability is concerning. Applications receive points for the rehabilitative programing proposed. Yet while new facilities may be funded based on these prospective accounts, state officials do not ensure these promises are fulfilled.

While facilities such as day reporting or education centers are eligible for this funding, and perhaps better reflect the rehabilitative aims of our juvenile justice system, residential facilities still dominate. It is therefore imperative that they are held to high rehabilitative standards.

A vast body of research details the components of rehabilitative practices, not limited to non-institutional furnishings, bathroom privacy, small-group living arrangements and opportunities for therapeutic physical and leisure recreation. Programming should meet specific needs of different populations, for example girls, and include treatment, education and skill building that acknowledge difficult backgrounds.

Looking to fields outside criminal justice for innovative strategies can build new pathways to success. That is why it is important that policymakers come from diverse backgrounds and foster relationships with practitioners, researchers and advocates.

It is not enough to simply roll out new facilities and programs, nor to expect youths to engage in prosocial behavior because they have been told to; they must believe they can. Criminal justice leaders must not only provide the tools to facilitate change; they must believe youths can succeed. A reform of thinking may be required before meaningful juvenile justice reform can be achieved.

Antonia Cartwright is a postgraduate fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in San Francisco. She is experienced in college lecturing and British law enforcement. Antonia has an M.S. in criminology and criminal psychology, and post-graduate certificate in education.

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