House Panel Told Alternatives to Incarceration Work Much Better

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WASHINGTON — Congress kicked off its latest push to reform juvenile justice today, presenting a bipartisan front and hearing from experts who said the old theory of getting tough on teenage offenders had been debunked by research, science and their own experiences in the field.

The House subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education brought up the issue for the first time this legislative session; the Senate is scheduled to hold a similar hearing later this month. Hanging over the proceedings was last year’s failure to enact such a measure, despite broad support from both parties, when objections from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, could not be overcome.

Today’s hearing included testimony from a police chief, juvenile court judge, youth outreach specialist and a court administrator. Each of them offered what they called data-driven proof that efforts to reduce crime among juveniles succeed only when education and counseling are offered instead of incarceration.  

Lafayette, Indiana, Police Chief Patrick J. Flannelly told lawmakers of his district’s experience since starting the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in 2008. The program went statewide in 2013, he said.

“This strategy reprioritizes existing funding away from detention facilities and into community-based alternative programs,” such as family counseling, therapy, substance abuse treatment if needed and similar measures, he said. Two controlled studies showed that a program called Functional Family Therapy cut teen recidivism rates in half, and a program designed for the most serious offenders reduced the rate of repeat offending by 62 percent.


“After starting the JDAI in Tippecanoe County, we were able to cut juvenile arrests from 1,646 in 2008 to 755 in 2016,” Flannelly said. “Not only did that save us the costs associated with each arrest, we also cancelled plans to build a 32-bed secure juvenile detention facility at an anticipated cost of $22 million.”

Lawmakers from both parties applauded the potential cost savings, but focused far more on the debilitating effects incarceration has on young people.

[Related: New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration]

“I’m glad we’re not here listening to simple-minded talk about how much punishment we can inflict on youthful offenders, even though that’s been proven to hurt our teenagers and waste the public’s money,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia. “What we’re seeing is the importance of addressing the issues at home much earlier and providing help.”

Scott, his colleagues and the speakers all agreed that stopping youth crime begins with providing family services early on when problems are first detected. Speakers talked about specific programs that are working in their home states, and said strong record keeping and databases to identify and fund the most successful are needed.

Matt Reed, executive director of Safe Place Services, part of the Greater Louisville, Kentucky, YMCA, discussed his district’s Juvenile Field Release program. That’s a partnership of his center, local police, the court administrator’s office and local youth detention services.

Rather than arrest teens for relatively minor offenses, “the most significant impact of the program has been the number of youth who gain immediate access to in-house or community partner referrals,” Reed said. Since 2005, the number of youth in detention facilities in Louisville has dropped by 60 percent.

Judge Denise Cubbon of Lucas County, Ohio, talked about the importance of providing judges and prosecutors with as many tools as possible to help juvenile offenders, saying their crimes are often a “symptom” of far more serious instances of abuse and neglect they suffer at home.

“I tried [working in] adult court, and I went right back to juvenile court because I knew we could make a difference,” Cubbon said. “I called it the court of hope, and that’s what we need.”

Lawmakers said those stories made them determined to overcome last year’s failure. Committee Chairman Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, noted that the need for better funding and more specialized care has grown greatly since the last reform in 2002, and remembered his own experiences as a former state prosecutor.

“I didn’t do juvenile court often, in fact I stayed away from it because it was so difficult to see those situations,” Rokita said. “My goal as a prosecutor when dealing with juveniles was to keep them out of incarceration, because if they go in, they come out more hardened criminals. I am encouraged by what we’re seeing, and by the bipartisan support that is needed.”

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