What do you think should happen when a kid is incarcerated? If you’re like most Americans, you think rehabilitation should be a top priority for youth correctional facilities, according to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
But are kids actually getting what they need in facilities to ensure they don’t commit new crimes when they return home? Evidently not:
- Two-thirds of these youth don’t return to school after their release from secure custody.
- Even though parents and families are the most important factor in determining youth success in reintegrating into the community, only one in three families report being included in any release plans made for their children by juvenile facilities.
- Youth with mental health and substance abuse issues often get substandard care in facilities. No matter what kind of care they get though, they usually cannot smoothly transition to care in the community, as those eligible for Medicaid or other health insurance are often released without being enrolled, or because their Medicaid coverage was terminated when they were first confined, and re-enrollment takes 90 days or more.
- It’s not uncommon for as many as 75 percent of youth returning home from confinement to be rearrested within three years, according to the Center of State Governments.
That’s why re-entry and aftercare matter for youth. Ideally, planning for re-entry is begun the moment youth enter the system, to ensure they are able to smoothly transition back home, and services and supervision are in place to help support them reintegrate safely and successfully.
In practice, it’s a rare youth who receives the kind of planning, cross-agency coordination and support they need to be successful.
For this reason, the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub has published a new section devoted to youth re-entry and aftercare, drafted and curated by the National Juvenile Justice Network, to aid practitioners and policymakers in improving our response to youth in trouble with the law.
While not exhaustive, the section is meant to provide a useful guide to the key issues that cover the challenges youth face and the critical elements of high-quality re-entry and aftercare; trends at the state level supporting the use and improvement of re-entry and aftercare; an abbreviated set of specific resources you can download now, and a list of experts in the field. There’s even a short glossary.
If you browse the site, you’ll learn that although experts have created a number of comprehensive models to guide practitioners in creating effective re-entry and aftercare services for youth, evaluation results to date have been equivocal. This is most likely because the models are tough to fully implement and fund, given the complexity of youth needs and the level of coordination required to adequately meet their needs.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot we’ve learned that we could use to make changes right now that would help kids re-enter their communities. A few examples:
- Ensure youth complete high school — Education in youth facilities is often substandard, and youth in adult facilities may get none at all. Last December, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice released joint guidelines for states on correctional education for youth, to encourage improvement. Two reforms that would make a difference: (1) requiring that youth educational records be transferred between schools within seven days of request; and (2) rolling back laws that create obstacles for youth to re-enroll when they return to their home community. This would only be a start — but it would be a good one.
- Prepare youth for the job market — Many youth leaving facilities are older teens who will soon be looking for jobs. Giving youth high-quality, industry-aligned technical training while locked up and the opportunity to practice their skills before they leave would help prepare them for work — especially if training includes assistance with the “soft skills” they need to succeed in interviews and with co-workers. Of course, once they are released, internships, apprenticeships and subsidized employment opportunities can help them catch up to their peers and ready them for the working world. Additional supports in the arenas of housing, child care and mental health and substance use treatment would also be useful.
- Provide mental health and substance abuse treatment — Research has shown that 64 percent of youth in custody struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues, so providing good, continuous care is essential. However, as I noted above, the quality of care they receive inside facilities is often inadequate or even nonexistent. Because gaps in care can contribute to new offenses, re-entry planning should ensure that youth move seamlessly from facility to care in the community. To this end, removing barriers to health insurance and Medicaid coverage is essential.
- Protecting the confidentiality of juvenile records — Youth leaving custody can be denied housing or jobs on the basis of their juvenile records, which are not adequately protected in many states. Allowing youth to have their record sealed or expunged is also a key step in helping them reintegrate successfully.
Kids in trouble with the law have deep capacity to learn and change. Doing a better job of re-entry and aftercare would go a long way toward helping them do just that — and make our communities safer.
Benjamin Chambers is communications director at the National Juvenile Justice Network.