[This is an excerpt from Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires A Shared Vision of Justice]

The influential prison reformer Chuck Colson often employed a vivid image. Many people, he said, view the prison system like they view the sewage system. They want to flush problems away without thinking about where they go.

This was the attitude, consciously or subconsciously, behind the growth of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. Prisons were built and filled, but remained largely hidden from view. By 2006, roughly one out of every 32 Americans was held in the justice system. It is important to note the racial disparities that existed -- and still do today -- as one in every 15 black males is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white males.

Nationwide, about 12 percent of delinquent youth are placed in prisons because they have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and assault. But many others are incarcerated for violating parole, or showing disrespect toward judges, probation officers and other officials. By some estimates, about 40 percent of incarcerated juveniles committed nonviolent offenses such as violations of probation, drug possession and public order offenses. And some young people with mental health conditions are dumped in facilities because there are no other treatment options.

However a growing body of data is revealing what works in reducing juvenile recidivism, or rate of re-offense, and what doesn’t.

What works often involves non-custodial based sentences that include weekly visits from counselors who work with the offender and their caregivers to confront specific risk factors like a lack of supervision, poor academic skills, and a lack of impulse control. In extreme cases of family dysfunction, a child may be placed for six months in a specially trained foster home while caregivers are given intensive training in parenting skills.    

It is true to say: “Children need strong families that surround them with love and rules.” But it is not sufficient. Many children lack this advantage. And it is not enough to complain about social conditions.

This is a case study in the principle that justice is multi-dimensional -- it requires the involvement of multiple institutions including government, family, churches, and non-profits. Government is often most effective when it works to strengthen other social institutions instead of always acting directly.

Government needs to act – but it should first try to act in ways that strengthen families, rather than ignoring or replacing them. For example, family support programs are one way to accomplish this goal. 

The lives and struggles of young people can’t simply be hidden behind walls and razor wire – flushed away to places we never see. No child is disposable. It is necessary to restrict certain risks to society – but also to leave room for second chances.