Locking up children just doesn't work, a study says

Locking up children just doesn't work, a study says

Illinois currently has about 1,200 youth in juvenile correctional facilities, and another 2,000 awaiting trial in detention facilities. How much does that cost us? More than $100 million a year, or about $85,000 per child, according to the Illinois State Bar Association. Fifteen percent of those children, it says, are in for misdemeanors, and 40 percent are in for low-level offenses.

What is it getting us? Nothing, according to a new study by the Annie E. Casey foundation. In fact, it’s probably making things worse.

Its findings? Locking up minors doesn’t reduce their rate of recidivism, doesn’t reduce crime, wastes taxpayer dollars and exposes children to violence and abuse. One hundred million for all that? It’s a lousy bargain.

Here are some of its findings:

– Within three years of being released, roughly 75 percent of youth are rearrested.

– Declining juvenile incarceration is associated with declining crime. Between 1997 and 2007, states which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests.

– Nationally, we spend about $5 billion on youth incarceration, even though in-home and community-based programs have been shown to generate equal or better results at a fraction of the price.

– The chilren are not alright: One in eight incarcerated juveniles reported being sexually abused by staff or other youth. Forty-two percent feared physical attack.

In Illinois, the problem isn’t just juvenile incarceration. The Chicago Reporter investigated Illinois’ policy to send 17-year-olds with a felony conviction to adult prison, as well as youth convicted of gun crimes. That series, written by reporter Angela Caputo, questioned the policy of hundreds of minors serving hard time in Illinois’ adult prisons with other adult felons, before these teens are allowed to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military. Caputo also examined young people sent to prison for gun charges. In those cases, a gun was recovered at the scene less than half of the time.

So what should be done? The study suggests that incarceration should be reserved for only the most dangerous youth.

“We have to recognize that incarceration of youth per se is toxic,” says Dr. Barry Krisberg,  president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “So we need to reduce incarceration of young people to the very small dangerous few. And we’ve got to recognize that if we lock up a lot of kids, it’s going to increase crime.”

Turns out that being tough on crime means not locking up chilren. Somebody should tell the politicians.

Photo credit: Casey Serin

© Community Renewal Society 2011


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  • So what are you going to do with them? You don't say.

    Unless you have proof (which wasn't provided here) that placing them in juvenile facilities causes recidivism, they would just be out on the street committing crime that much sooner.

    And, if the ones arrested for gun crimes are not "the most dangerous youth," then how do you define that? Does the juvenile have to be convicted in the juvenile system and remanded to her parent [not likely that there are parents] for the equivalent of murder two or three times to qualify?

    Since I know you won't answer, this is more sociological "research" without thinking about the consequences if the legislature bought this hook, line and sinker.

  • I am disappointed by Jack's comment above, and it is clear that he did not actually look at the report that is behind this article. This article is a very brief synopsis of a well researched, well thought through report by the Casie Foundation. The report is linked in the article and provides data to back up these questions. Here is the address again: http://www.aecf.org/OurWork/JuvenileJustice/JuvenileJusticeReport.aspx.

    Jack complains that there is no proof "that placing them in juvenile facilities causes recidivism". However, looking at the chart on page 10 of the report, it seems clear like longer incarceration time leads to consistently HIGHER recidivism rates across a range of factors, including rearrest for misdemeanors and rearrest for felonies. Pages 26 and 27 of the report refute Jack's statement further.

    Jack brings up an important point that "the most dangerous youth" is not defined in this article. This is certainly a question for policymakers to ponder in trying to reduce incarceration rates. On p. 29 of the report, there are examples of five different states' methods for limiting what groups of juveniles are incarcerated. On this point, the report wisely concludes that: "Regardless of the specific criteria states adopt, what’s important is to tie placement eligibility to the crimes youth have committed and their risks of re-offending—not to their needs for treatment or services." (again, p. 29). In other words, it does matter how to limit children entering the system, but there are several other states' models to draw from.

    So, in short, this is capital 'R' Research, not sarcastic quotation marks "research." The consequences of incarceration of young people are almost uniformly negative, and this article does a good job bringing some of the key points of the Casey Foundation report to life. It is worthwhile to push our legislators to take note and take action.

  • In reply to joshinchi:

    Regardless of whether there is empirical data behind the research, it still doesn't say what we should do with them, especially since you acknowledge that it does not define what is "dangerous youth."

    I guess the juvenile justice system should just give them a bus pass, a ticket to the circus, and $5 for popcorn, and hope that all will be well.

  • In reply to jack:

    While Jack is right to point out that this report does not say what to do with children in conflict with the law, his coy suggestions show a distinct lack of both maturity and seriousness. The Casey Foundation report highlighted in this article was not trying to lay out alternatives. However, another Casey report about the Missouri juvenile justice system does provide some meaningful alternatives. The table of contents to that report provide six suggestions:

    - one: Small and Non-Prisonlike Facilities, Close to Home
    - two: Individual Care Within a Group Treatment Model
    - three: Safety Through Relationships and Supervision, Not Correctional Coercion
    - four: Building Skills for Success
    - five: Families as Partners
    - six: Focus on Aftercare

    See the link to the entire report here: http://www.aecf.org/Home/MajorInitiatives/~/media/Pubs/Initiatives/Juvenile%20Detention%20Alternatives%20Initiative/MOModel/MO_Fullreport_webfinal.pdf

    For the record, I do not work for Casey Foundation, but do respect their work.

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