juvenile justice: discover

by Michael Gerson

[The following is an excerpt from the book.]

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. This approach and the corresponding disparity extends to youth offenders as well. Few Americans have contact with this system except corrections officials and those involved in prison ministry.

New York’s Rikers Island correctional facility is a tragic example of how we seek to isolate crime and criminals. It is located in the middle of the East River, reachable only by a single unmarked bridge. Along with thousands of adult prisoners, nearly 800 juvenile offenders are also housed. A 2014 report by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York revealed a “broken institution” where violence is commonplace, solitary confinement is routine and about half of the youth population is diagnosed with mental health issues.

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.

Past attempts to move juvenile offenders off Rikers Island to smaller facilities elsewhere have been blocked. Communities simply don’t take them. Nobody seems to want them. And this seems to be a trend.

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.

A perverse incentive structure is also sometimes at work. When a court orders drug treatment or mental health services for a juvenile, a locality (a city or county) is generally required to pay for those services. When a juvenile is incarcerated, the state usually foots the bill. For many localities, locked facilities are the cheaper option. For states, however, incarceration is expensive – often costing more than $200,000 a year per inmate. 

A variety of studies have found that 70 to 80 percent of incarcerated youth are rearrested within a year. And there are predicable, negative results on education and employment. By one estimate, 66 percent of juveniles who are incarcerated never return to school, which dramatically undermines their prospects in the labor market. And all of these bad results are achieved at an absurdly high cost – often 10 times the expense of sending a child to a good state university.

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.     

This type of family intervention does not always work, of course. But studies have shown reductions in recidivism of about 20 percent.  And there is a reason for this success. These programs attempt to strengthen the social institution that is designed to give guidance to youth – the family – instead of trying to replace it with prison guards and parole officers (very poor substitutes).

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. 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. 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. 

In many ways, Missouri has become the hopeful exemplar of reform (similar efforts are often said to be following “the Missouri model”). None of its confinement facilities hold more than 50 juveniles. Each youth is assigned a single case-officer through the justice process who works closely with families on the issues surrounding reentry. Recidivism rates are low.

Juvenile justice reform is a success story, if still an incomplete one. 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.


Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Three: Engage the Solutions

Part Three: Engage the Solutions