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5 Reasons to Act Now on Juvenile Justice Reform

Teenage boy in handcuffs

Did you know that the U.S. incarcerates more of its kids per capita than any other developed nation—and that we spend about $5 billion a year of taxpayers’ money to keep them locked up?

Is that because a lot more kids in America are committing violent acts and getting arrested for them?  No; they’re not.  It’s largely because our juvenile justice system incarcerates many young people for low-level offenses and technical violations, and shortchanges investment in evidence-based alternatives that can save money and make communities safer.

Here are five reasons to act now on youth justice reform:

1.      Overreliance on incarceration is unnecessary.

Many young people in juvenile correctional facilities are incarcerated for low-level and nonviolent offenses.  In 2010, for example, of the 59,000 youths under age 18 confined in juvenile facilities in the U.S., only 1 in 4 was detained or committed for a serious violent offense.  About 12,700 kids (1 in 5) were confined only for status offenses (such as truancy, curfew violation, or running away) or technical violations (such as failing to report to a parole officer).

A number of states have shifted their youth justice policies away from overreliance on incarceration, with no accompanying increase in juvenile crime.

2.      Incarceration doesn’t reduce future crime. 

Juvenile incarceration doesn’t reduce re-offending, but rather increases it, especially among youth with less-serious delinquency histories.

That’s no surprise, considering that youth in juvenile correctional facilities are exposed to more serious offenders and to widespread physical and sexual violence in confinement.

3.      Evidence-based alternatives work.

A large body of research shows that alternatives to incarceration, including diversion, community-based supervision, and evidence-based interventions, reduce re-offending, even among youths who have committed serious offenses.

Youth who receive post-incarceration community-based supervision and services are also less likely to re-offend, and more likely to go to school and work.

For a minority of young offenders deemed a threat to public safety, the success of the Missouri model suggests that smaller facilities, closer to youth’s homes and focused intensely on safety, youth development, and family involvement, reduce recidivism and increase educational progress compared to juvenile correctional facilities.

4.      It’s time for government to stop wasting our money and young people’s futures.

It costs American taxpayers about $88,000 to keep one youth incarcerated for one year.  In contrast, an evidence-based intervention such as Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, or Multisystemic Therapy costs less than a tenth as much and yields a positive return on investment—while actually helping kids and reducing crime.

Incarceration often disrupts a young person’s education, and many youths don’t return to school after being incarcerated. Individuals incarcerated as juveniles are at higher risk (even after controlling for other factors) for being unemployed even years later in adulthood.  That doesn’t help anyone.

5.      The American people get it.

According to a recent national survey, 3 out of 4 Americans agree that the juvenile justice system should focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration and should provide youth with more opportunities to better themselves.

How can you act now to reform youth justice?

  1. Find out what’s going on in your state.

  2. Tell your legislators it’s time for change.

  3. Connect with groups working on state-based reforms.

You may also be interested in:

“Detained” – APA Monitor article on teens in the juvenile justice system


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