Fixing the time in youth crime: Long, harsh sentences not seen as way to rehabilitate

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

Counselors Jason Midgley, left, and Charlie Green oversee a language arts class at the Genesis Youth Center in Draper on Thursday, January 26, 2012. The main purpose of the Genesis program is to hold youths accountable for their delinquent behavior.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

For Utah's youngest criminals, prison smells like potpourri.

Life is simple. Home is a 7-by-10 foot room with a bed, desk and bookshelves that look like they were probably poured out the back of the same cement truck. There's a half-inch foam mat to make sleeping bearable and a stainless steel toilet in the corner. Through a slit-like window, children can watch the wind riffle through the sun-browned grass of a baseball field they built themselves. Here they dream about freedom and rue the decisions that sent them to the Decker Lake Youth Center to be locked up behind a stereotype-shattering, flimsy chain-link fence.

But life in the compound, a low-key brick building tucked behind a golf course at 2700 South in West Valley City, is mostly comfortable and laid back. Mornings and afternoons are spent learning about literature and algebra in classrooms not unlike those in nearby Granite School District. In the evenings the children gather in a homey rec room for group therapy with a motherly social worker, play basketball and — if there's time — challenge one another to games of ping-pong. Here, there are no red-faced guards barking orders boot-camp style. Instead, gray-haired schoolteachers in cozy cardigans smile brightly at little vandals, robbers and knife-wielding gangsters and say things like, "These boys are my pride and joy."

It is a far cry from the rat-infested juvenile detention centers that, for the past two decades, have been making U.S. headlines for jaw-dropping human rights violations like chaining youth to their beds 23 hours a day, beating them with bricks and forcing them to exercise without water. Homey, therapeutic Decker Lake Youth Center just might be a peek into the future of juvenile detention in the United States.

When it comes to dealing with wayward youth, the United States is the toughest in the world. Although juvenile arrest rates are only marginally higher here than many comparable countries, incarceration rates are nearly five times the rate of the next most punitive nation. The majority of America's incarcerated children are behind bars, not because they are violent, but because they committed property, drug and public order offenses. Aside from Somalia, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole.

America's affinity for youth prisons isn't without cost. In many states the price tag for locking up one child is more than $200,000 annually. For some, federal investigations into inhumane conditions have led to court-ordered reforms that cost millions. All that money may be for naught. An avalanche of research has emerged in recent years that suggests locking kids up in 100-, 200- and 300-bed institutions doesn't work — either to improve public safety or reform youth.

Budget cuts, scandal and sky-high re-offense rates are forcing many states to pose the question: Is it worth it? For an increasing number, the answer is no. States are shuttering prisons, building smaller, less punitive facilities like Utah's Decker Lake Youth Center and diverting more youth to home-based programs. Since the beginning of 2007, 18 states have shut down 52 correctional facilities, according to a report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in December. Nationwide, the total number of children in correctional facilities has dropped more than 30 percent during the last decade. The number locked up in long-term detention centers declined by more than 40 percent.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court in 2005 banned sentencing juveniles to death as unconstitutional. In 2010, the court held children convicted of non-homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. This month, justices will hear the cases of two 14-year-old boys facing life sentences for murder to determine if, even for the most heinous crimes, locking up children and throwing away the key constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

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