Let's Stop Trying to 'Fix' Kids' Behavior With Incarceration


The juvenile justice system was created to ensure public safety while helping youth overcome difficulties and become successful members of their communities. For many young people who have been adjudicated by the juvenile court, though, the system has become a tool for broader intervention than simply preserving safety: a way of getting kids help.

Consequently, well-meaning juvenile courts sometimes make decisions to incarcerate kids in hopes of getting them the services they need.

This raises grave concerns. Young people should be placed in secure facilities only when they present a safety risk to the community. Secure placements—the placement or commitment of a young person in secure confinement—are an extreme deprivation of personal liberty and should only be used when necessary for ensuring public safety.

If a community and court believe that decision is necessary to ensure community safety, it may be an appropriate choice. However, it is not appropriate to consider secure placements for young people who do not represent a substantial risk to community safety.

Young people who are at low or moderate risk of committing a serious offense in the future, regardless of their needs, should remain in the community. Their needs will be best met, and most effectively addressed, outside the formal justice system.

There are simple and compelling arguments for why we need to stop sending such a large number of children to out-of-home placement.

First and foremost, it hurts kids.

Out-of-home placement, even when well-intentioned, can cause significant harm. Research shows that incarcerated adolescents—including those committed to secure facilities, group homes, and residential treatment centers—experience impaired development, especially related to maturity, impulse control, and responsibility. The deficits increase as young people spend more time confined and separated from their communities.

Second, it doesn't make sense from a treatment perspective.

In general, interventions work better in the community. Programs consistent with evidence-based practice, which emphasize things like cognitive-behavioral and family-based therapeutic interventions, mentoring and positive community connections, are the most successful ones we have to help kids—and they are most successful in homes and communities.

Finally, it hurts communities.

Research studies have consistently shown that spending time in out-of-home placement increases the likelihood of future offending, future adult crimes, homelessness, joblessness, and not completing high school. For young people at a low risk of committing a future offense, out-of-home placements can actually increase their risk level and decrease public safety.

As a community, we are all damaged when our children are further damaged.

So how do we help young people in need, and ensure that our communities are safe, both for the short term and the long term?

For the few young people who are incarcerated because they do pose a serious risk to public safety, we must create programming that can, to the greatest extent possible, mitigate the negative impacts of the confinement experience. Such programming should include developmentally appropriate education, trauma-screening and services as required, facilitation of ongoing relationships and connection with family and community on the outside, and ensuring physical and emotional safety within facility walls.

But to put the problem plainly, juvenile incarceration just doesn't work very well.

No matter how good our approach is to juvenile confinement, it will always be a second- best approach compared to community-based solutions.

This is not a problem juvenile courts can solve alone. It is an opportunity for whole communities to consider how they want to respond to these young people—and to consider how governments can adopt positive, effective, successful intervention to support youth development, reduce crime and make communities safer.

Rather than respond with a system based on the deprivation of liberty, our response should be focused around strengthening community resources, supporting neighborhoods and families, and positive youth development. Our response should make keeping youth with their family and community a priority, and it should be grounded in our knowledge of brain science, human development and positive community supports.

So what would it take to get us there?

We need to begin by using our resources better. Rather than focusing our efforts on “fixing” young people who get into trouble, we should seek to prevent the circumstances that lead to delinquent behaviors. Communities, government agencies and other stakeholders can creatively work together to get young people, families and communities what they need.

If we want young people to avoid delinquent behavior, the best solution is often a common-sense one: give them better options. When young people have opportunities in their own neighborhoods to be engaged with the community, to establish positive relationships with adults and role models, to thrive in school, and to learn job skills, they will be less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, get arrested, or be adjudicated.

A community of adults who see and value young people can influence positive development and pro-social choices.

And as the investments shift, we need our communities to respond to the needs of young people. If the responsibility for getting youth what they need doesn't lie with judges and others who are part of the justice system, it must lie with the communities that children live in. It lies with neighbors, family, schools and community organizations.

It lies, in other words, with us.

Communities must step up to find ways to get young people what they need. There are so many ways we can direct our expertise and resources to support young people's success: build after-school opportunities, create job-readiness programs, and use community resources.

We can work to change drug laws and sentencing minimums, and we can break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage by changing municipal infrastructures and by finding new housing solutions.

The list is long.

If we want real juvenile justice reform, we have to understand that solutions can't just lie in within the system. But most of all, we have to act—and invest—accordingly.

Kathy Park is Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. NCCD works to improve outcomes for at-risk children, adults, families, and communities by bringing research and data-driven decision making to the juvenile and adult criminal justice, child welfare, and adult protection systems. Ms. Park welcomes comments from readers.

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