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

The public, for the most part, favors a more gentle approach to youth crime. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe juvenile justice should be more focused on prevention and rehabilitation than it is now, according to a survey published in October by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Campaign for Youth Justice. Just 15 percent believe it should be more focused on punishing youths, while 1 percent believe the country has the formula figured out.

Research backs reform, too. Hundreds of studies in recent years have shown that putting youth behind bars increases the likelihood of committing future crime. A recent study from the Arkansas Department of Youth Services found prior commitment is the single most significant factor in predicting a youth's future success — even more so than gang membership and poor family relationships. Across the nation, as many as 50 to 70 percent of the youth who were locked up were rearrested within two years of release, according a meta-analysis of more than 400 studies. By comparison, just 32 to 37 percent of those who participated in therapy-heavy community-based programs had further run-ins with the law.

"Everything we know about adolescent development and what helps kids grow into productive adults indicates removing them from communities is the worst thing that we can do," Lubow said. "We're both immersing them in a criminal environment and removing them from natural supports and connections."

The trend toward deinstitutionalization in America wasn't spurred entirely — or even mostly — by research, though, said Barry Krisberg, research and policy director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. And it isn't a sign of a national embrace of the idea that America locks up too many kids, either.

"It's about money," he said. "Because of the financial crisis, we can't afford to do this. It would cost less to send the kids to the most expensive private college in the state than it does to lock them up."

The cost of locking up a child ranges from less than $100 per day to more than $700 per day, according to the American Correctional Association. On average, states spend $241 for every day a child spends behind bars, which adds up to an average annual cost of about $88,000.

In addition to operating costs, many states facing lawsuits over allegations of abuse have been hit with millions in legal fees and, if they lost, costly court-ordered reforms.

Since 1970, 57 successful lawsuits have been filed against state juvenile correction agencies, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Systematic violence, abuse and other forms of maltreatment have been documented in 39 states. In the first-ever nationally representative survey of youth behind bars, published in 2010, close to half of children indicated they were somewhat or very afraid of being physically attacked by staff or other inmates.

"You have the predator and the prey," Kemp said. "If you don't wanna be the prey, you gotta be the predator."

The Oak Hill Detention Center in Washington, D.C., where Kemp came of age, was shut down in 2009 after a years-long legal battle over conditions. The court ordered California, which has reduced the number of incarcerated children from more than 10,000 to 1,000 in the past decade, to improve youth prisons. To cut costs, Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing to shut down the state's remaining three facilities and push the responsibility of youth corrections onto communities. In New York, a federal investigation and a series of lawsuits prompted leadership to consider launching a six-year pilot program that would put New York City in charge of rehabilitating its own juvenile delinquents.

"This is a total realignment," said Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of probation for New York City. "The dominant construct in juvenile justice around the country is to have a state-run, centralized institution. We are living in this bygone era when we thought sending kids far away from home was somehow going to help them get better. New York City wants out of that."

A model for the future

In designing its new regional program, New York, like many states in the nation, is looking to states like Utah and Missouri for guidance.

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