WASHINGTON — A large majority of Americans say the juvenile justice system must place more emphasis on rehabilitating youthful offenders and focus far less on punishment and prison, according to a survey released today.
The poll of 1,001 adults showed agreement across racial and political lines, with all demographics saying kids who commit crimes deserve a second chance, and that society is better off helping the teens than tossing them into prison. Sponsored by the nonprofit Youth First Initiative, the survey results were not markedly different from the group’s 2016 poll, but did show participants continue to want more aggressive rehabilitative efforts.
“I think the poll shows policymakers that they should be doing this,” said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the initiative. “Young people should be given opportunities, not punishment. You can hold people accountable without incarceration.”
The results are just the latest proof that Americans want to see a different approach, she said.
“For too long too many states have pursued a tough on crime strategy that falls back on past prejudices and assumptions and doesn’t take into account the large body of research identifying evidence-based practices that work,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-California, co-chair of the House Crime Prevention and Youth Development Caucus. “More and more states and cities are now moving towards intervention-prevention mechanisms that keep our kids from getting in trouble in the first place, and focus on rehabilitation.”
Roughly 80 percent of participants favored education and preventative measures over a punitive approach when asked a series of questions about youth offenders and the impact on society. The number of respondents saying families should be involved in designing treatment and rehabilitation plans for juveniles charged with crimes reached 90 percent, slightly higher than last year’s survey.
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Ryan said she was encouraged by poll results that show support for rehabilitation was virtually equal in every region of the country. White people without a college degree — a sturdy base of support for President Donald Trump — had the same opinions on reform as minority respondents to the survey.
Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said that isn’t a surprise.
“I think there are a couple reasons for it, and the main one is that people really do believe children are different than adults and deserve a second chance,” she said. “The other is you’ve seen a 50 percent drop in youth incarceration over the past decade, and at the same time you are seeing less arrests of juveniles.
“I think the general public understands that locking up kids leads to more crime, not less,” she said. “If you treat people with dignity and provide services you can actually help reduce crime.”
The numbers in favor of more progressive approaches to youth incarceration become slightly lower when the subject turns to financial benefits of rehabilitation vs. incarceration, and on whether less punitive measures work as well as harsher methods.
For example, while 94 percent of participants agreed that the most important job of the juvenile justice system is to make sure teens get back on track and never commit new crimes, not all agreed on the best way to make that happen. Only 69 percent of respondents said that making sure teens take responsibility for their actions can be done without some time behind bars.
About one-quarter of the participants said counseling and education aren’t enough to keep youth offenders from committing new crimes. Still, nearly 90 percent said states should have financial incentives to keep offering preventive programs and counseling.
The survey results, and the slight uptick in support for progressive measures from a year earlier, continue a trend away from incarcerating youth. Ninety-four percent said the justice system’s most important job is making sure youth get their lives “back on track” and refrain from future crime.
Congress tilted toward that approach last year, although not without some resistance. A bipartisan reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act would have, among other things, blocked judges from jailing juveniles for violating court orders if the underlying offense — such as truancy or underage tobacco use — was only a crime when committed by juveniles.
It sailed through the House and had the support of Senate leaders, only to be blocked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Cotton had insisted that local judges should be able to incarcerate youth at their own discretion if court orders are violated.
“I think Tom Cotton’s behavior is bad behavior. We’ve made a lot of progress in the past two years, but now we have to start all over with a new Congress,” Mistrett said. “We had great leadership from Sen. Chuck Grassley [R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee], and we are going to keep working with them.”
This story has been updated.
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