Keeping kids out of jail: new report shows progress on alternatives
Number of Utah youths held behind bars drops by 20%
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Scott G Winterton, Deseret News, Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
While the U.S. continues to lead the world in juvenile incarceration, enormous progress has been made in recent years, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation released Tuesday. Utah saw the number of youth in jail drop by 20 percent from 1997 to 2010.
Youth incarceration rates have now dipped to 225 per 100,000, rates not seen since before 1975 and much lower than the 1995 peak of 381. In raw numbers, that's a drop from over 107,000 to below 71,000, despite population growth during that period.
Most states showed significant declines, with large states like California dropping its youth incarceration rate by 48 percent, Illinois by 36 percent and New Jersey by 53 percent.
"In the past 20 years, we've learned a lot about what doesn't work, including incarceration, and what does work," said Bart Lubow, director of AECF's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. "And the accumulation of that knowledge has begun to make systems smarter."
"We have good research that shows that pulling kids into the juvenile justice system is a bad move," Lubow said. "The more we pull kids into the juvenile system, the more we drive them into persistent delinquency and ultimately adult crime."
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been working in this space for years. AECF created, funded and implemented the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is now operating at 200 sites throughout the country. The initiative seeks to reduce inappropriate confinement and improve the quality of confinement through alternatives, improving data and developing best practices.
Lubow is quick to point out that his group's efforts adhere to a much larger picture, reflecting a broad movement to find new ways to safely reduce confinement. Policymakers now recognize evidence that low-risk youth detained with high-risk youth suffer from a "contagion effect," Lubow said.
"I don't think we've taken these ideas to scale yet, and I don't think they are embedded yet in the DNA of the system," Lubow said, "but I think they are part the changes we are seeing in this report."
A key backdrop to attitude change, Lubow said, is a steady decline in crime over the past two decades created the "ideological space" needed. Without this decline, legislators would have felt pressured to posture on toughness.
A related change Lubow notes is a significant movement among conservatives. "There has been a significant change in the tone of the debate," he said, citing the Right on Crime organization in Texas that headlines conservative thought leaders such as Newt Gingrich and William Bennett.
A recurring theme in talking to experts in the field is the undeveloped state of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain required for moral and socially responsible judgment.
"It goes back to the decision-making capacity and brain development. You don't have your prefrontal cortex developed until you are between 21 or 24," said Reg Garff of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
As Lubow suggests, this transformation in juvenile justice has occurred in numerous small pieces, dispersed throughout the country. One piece of the puzzle, both reflecting and contributing to the new approach is "youth courts," an innovation that allows panels of teenagers to suggest solutions for peers who have tangled with the law.
"In times past, without the youth court, the police could give them a warning," said Karlene Kidman, youth court director in Layton, Utah. "Now they give them a citation to youth court." If the youth offender chooses, they can go instead to juvenile court, but the youth court allows engagement at a lower level without going on the child's record.
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