It's Time to Be Smart on Juvenile Crime

A quarter century of "tough on crime" political rhetoric has in many states spilled over into the juvenile justice system, based on illogical platitudes like "commit an adult crime, do adult time." With the exception of a few status offenses like truancy, every crime is an "adult crime" in the sense that it can be committed by an adult. That's no reason to pretend that a 14 year old has the same maturity or reasoning ability (pdf) as an adult.

The "lock 'em up" strategy that prevails in our adult criminal justice system has infected the juvenile justice system, as well. Fortunately, as a New York Times editorial recognizes, there are more productive alternatives than shipping children off to juvenile (or adult) prisons where they'll be warehoused with minimal effort to rehabilitate.

One proven way to prevent borderline young offenders from becoming serious criminals is to treat them — and their families — in community-based counseling programs instead of shipping them off to juvenile facilities that are often hundreds of miles away from home. ... In addition to saving young lives, the community-based programs cost a lot less: $20,000 per child per year versus as much as $200,000 for holding a child in a juvenile facility.

[more ...]

In addition to the crusty old hard-liners who still think that the way to get votes is to be tougher on crime than the next legislator, the juvenile prison industry opposes reform.

Earlier this year, Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, announced her intention to close five of the state’s 22 facilities for low-level offenders and an intake center in the Bronx. A longtime advocate of community-based therapies, Ms. Carrión was fiercely criticized by the unions and communities where the facilities are located.

A community-based treatment approach is not only less costly, it's a more effective means of preventing future crime.

About 80 percent of the young men who are placed in juvenile facilities in New York end up committing more crimes within three years of their release. Preliminary data from New York City suggests that the recidivism rate for the new community-based programs might be as low as 35 percent.

That's a lesson that needs to be learned and a reform that needs to be implemented in every state, even if prison unions and communities with economies that depend on juvenile prisons object.

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    to be clear... (none / 0) (#1)
    by john b on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 11:01:13 AM EST
    ...the 80% figure and the 35% figure are taken from the same data set?  Just making sure the 80% doesn't include worse first-time offenders than the children who qualify for community-based treatment.  

    I agree with much of what you say: (none / 0) (#2)
    by hairspray on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 11:09:33 AM EST
    1) community resources for young offenders and their families.
    2)No juveniles incarcarated with adults
    What I would like to see is some evidence based programs.  In Oakland, CA the community has tons of local enrichment activities, after school help, and for the last decade bond measures pumping 10-15 million dollars yearly into the community called violence prevention and we are still not seeing real results. What is the missing piece?

    Lock them up (none / 0) (#3)
    by koshembos on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 11:19:08 AM EST
    has become a solution for adults, juveniles, Muslims (Gitmo) and illegal immigrants. Some adult criminals require to be excluded from society. Most other criminals should be subject to other, mostly, cheaper methods.

    Imprisoning juveniles as adults is not only unjust and unproductive, it's also a reflection on our cavalier approach to the future and the young generation. Pretending that there is a single bullet solution, lock them up, to criminal and no-criminal youngsters results in jails, bad schools and the huge debt society, i.e. adults, take on.

    But the same society also votes for the lock them up politicisnd.

    It says much about our culture (none / 0) (#4)
    by nellre on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 04:57:50 PM EST
    They say you can judge a culture by how they treat their children.
    Our culture seems to be quick to toss them in the garbage.
    "Try as an adult" gives it away. We know they aren't but are going to treat them that way anyway. Shameful.

    children convicted to life without parole (none / 0) (#5)
    by dutchmarbel on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 07:58:44 PM EST
    In the USA kids are not just tried as adults, but convicted to live without parole. A few years ago I leard (via HRW I think) about minors serving LWOP and I was utterly shocked.

    More than 2,270 youth offenders are serving LWOP in the United States while there are only 12 in all other countries of the world combined.

    Nationally, 59% of juveniles sentenced to LWOP are first-time offenders—without even a single crime on a juvenile court record; and 26% are serving the sentence for felony murder crimes in which the teen participated in a robbery or other felony during which another participant committed murder, without the knowledge or intent of the teen.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider S. 3155, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008, for markup in the coming days. This legislation will reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), which has provided states and localities with federal standards and supports for improving juvenile justice and delinquency prevention practices, and has contributed to safeguards for youth, families and communities since its inception in 1974.

    We strongly support S. 3155 for the following reasons:

    The bill adds critical additions to the JJPDA to keep youth out of adult jails and prisons. Youth placed in adult jails with adults are at risk of physical and sexual assault. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 21% and 13% of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 and 2006 respectively, were youth under the age of 18, though only 1% of inmates are juveniles.

    It strengthens provisions to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. This is a critical change because at every level of the juvenile justice system, youth of color are disproportionately represented. This overrepresentation is evidenced at many stages of the juvenile justice system process.

    It focuses on conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities, and assists States in their capacity to comply with the federal law. S. 3155 requires States to collect data regarding restraints and isolation and to adopt policies and procedures to eliminate the use of dangerous practices in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, such as hog-tying, use of pepper spray, and any forms of sexual abuse. It also ensures that States will receive technical assistance to comply with the law, and for States not in compliance, JJDPA funds that would otherwise have been withheld can be used by the States as improvement grants to regain compliance in that specific area.

    We also support two proposed amendments to the bill:

    Senator Cardin's amendment proposing fully eliminating the lock up of status offenders

    Senator Whitehouse's amendment expanding the bill's mental health provisions

    For more information on the bill and to find ways to support it, please visit