The nearly two-centuries-old approach in America to institutionalizing and detaining young people who run afoul of the law must be replaced by a system that takes into account the different developmental needs of youth—and the interests of society in making sure they aren’t channeled into a lifetime of criminal behavior, says a paper sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice.
“It is difficult to find an area of U.S. policy where the benefits and costs are more out of balance, where the evidence of failure is clearer, or where we know with more clarity what we should be doing differently,” says the paper, titled “The Future of Youth Justice.”
“Every youth prison in the country should be closed and replaced with a network of community-based programs and small facilities near the youth’s communities.”
The authors—Patrick McCarthy, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; and Miriam Shark, an independent consultant based in Portland, Me.—prepared the paper as part of a the school’s Executive Session on Community Corrections.
According to the paper, the failure of youth prisons to rehabilitate young people—or protect public safety—flows from “inherent flaws” in a system largely modeled on adult-style facilities that focus on confinement and control. No less significant is the fact that the model has exacted “enormous” financial costs on society: the cost of incarcerating a single youth averages $146,302 per year in the U.S., taking account of a wide range across the states.
And the return on that investment is poor. The authors cite UN data showing the rates of youth incarceration in the US far exceed those of other countries.
In place of the current system, the papers recommend a four-pronged approach:
- Reduce the number of commitments to youth prisons by at least half;
- Change the culture, configuration and decision making process of juvenile justice so that community-based and family-centered programs take priority;
- For those youth who require “secure placement,”develop treatment-intensive and developmentally appropriate programs in smaller facilities, such as those currently being developed in Missouri;
- Reinvest saved youth justice funds in services and support systems oriented towards providing opportunities for delinquent youth in their own communities, ranging from child welfare to mental health.
“Youth prisons,” the authors note, “contravene everything we know about adolescent development in general, and especially the population of youth who come into contact with the system.
“Instead of helping kids get back on track, these facilities exacerbate many of the factors that brought them to the attention of the courts in the first place.”
The entire paper is available here.