Teen Incarceration Predicts Adult Imprisonment, Says Author Bernstein


The U.S. rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain, and 18 times that of France. It costs an average of $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up, far more than is spent on a child’s education. The biggest problem with juvenile incarceration, author Nell Bernstein tells NPR, is that instead of helping troubled kids get their lives back on track, detention usually makes their problems worse, and leads to more crime and self-destructive behavior. “The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn’t gang involvement, wasn’t family issues, wasn’t delinquency itself,” Bernstein says. “The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.”

Bernstein’s new book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” takes an in-depth look at juvenile incarceration. “Almost from the moment a young person walks in those gates, it’s made very clear to him that he’s a prisoner,” she says. “I know that when I go into these places and cross the razor wire and hand over my driver’s license, I often feel like I’ve stamped my passport at the border of a new country. It’s that different.” While many states have tried to reform their juvenile detention facilities, Bernstein says that locking young people away is the wrong way to deal with most youth offenders. “It’s their identity, and eventually it’s their lot in life,” she says, “which goes a long way to explaining why juvenile [detention] predicts adult incarceration.”

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