Support Growing for Juvenile Incarceration Reform

Juvenile incarceration has become an increasing problem amongst state legislatures. The case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in 2010, is a perfect example. Unable to pay the $10,000 bail, Browder spent a confirmed 1,000 days at Rikers Island awaiting trial. Eventually in 2013 his case was dismissed and for years after he suffered mental and emotional turmoil, as well as multiple suicide attempts. Browder took his own life on Saturday, June 6 at the age of 22, reported The New Yorker. This is just one among the many high profile juvenile incarceration injustices that are forcing states to re-examine their use of lengthy out-of-home placements in the juvenile justice system.

According to a study of the youth detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, Illinois by the U.S. Department of Justice, mortality rates among delinquent youth can be as much as four times higher than that in the standardized general population. This not only highlights failures to address mental health needs and the need to rehabilitate at-risk youth, it also points in policy terms to failed recidivism and a misspending of juvenile justice funds at the most severe level. The PEW Charitable Trusts recently published a report outlining research that demonstrates how out-of-home placements in secure corrections or other residential facilities fails to produce better outcomes than alternative sanctions, and can even be counterproductive. Among the Cook County findings included the trend that juveniles who experienced confinement were more likely to drop out of high school and to be incarcerated as adults, than youth offenders who were not incarcerated. Other studies conducted in Arizona and Pennsylvania, found that youth who reported the lowest levels of offending before being placed were more likely to re-offend following institutional stays. Furthermore, in Texas a recent study found that youth in community-based treatment activity and surveillance programs had lower recidivism rates than similar youths who were released from state facilities.

Not only does the research prove incarceration to be ineffective in preventing juveniles from relapsing into criminal behavior, but also incarceration is extremely costly. States can spend up to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to hold a single juvenile offender in a corrections facility, according to PEW. In 2013, the cost of placing an offender at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility was $199,329 and three out of four youth released in 2005-2007 were convicted within three years. Additionally, in California the average annual cost of housing a juvenile offender in a state facility was $179,400 in 2012 and more than half of juvenile offenders released in 2007 and 2008 were incarcerated within three years. The cost explicitly outweighs the benefit in terms of institutional placement sanctions.

Support for juvenile reform has found broad, bipartisan support among the American public as well: a 2014 poll found that nearly nine in 10 registered voters believe that juvenile correctional facilities should be used to house only serious offenders and that policymakers should find less costly alternatives for lower-level offenders. Voters also tend to view juvenile corrections facilities as government programs, which tend to have low support across the electorate. Overall, voters overwhelmingly tend to show more support for preventing crime than for the incarceration of juvenile offenders. Over the past number of years, local lawmakers and state legislatures have begun to listen and take action.

From 2007 to 2014 states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas passed legislation limiting out-of-home placements for delinquent youth. Most of these laws ban commitment to state’s youth correctional facilities for misdemeanor and nonviolent offenses. Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio have additionally passed laws in the last couple of years to moderate the length of stay for juveniles. As more cases of youth incarceration and injustices become publicized, state legislatures will shift towards alternative means of treatment.