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.
Garff expresses some frustration that recent budget cuts have endangered "receiving centers," that have for more than 20 years offered a buffer between doing nothing and sending a kid into confinement.
Before the receiving centers, Garff said, an officer would either "cite and release" or drive youth offenders around until they could find a parent. The result was an enormous gap between doing nothing and doing too much, especially given routine, minor offenses.
Most of the offenses handled by youth courts are quite minor. The two biggest categories handled by Layton youth courts, Karlene Kidman said, are truancy and retail theft, followed by curfew violations. Youth courts in Utah cannot handle felonies or high level misdemeanors.
Solutions are flexible. For instance, the Layton youth court helps arrange academic counseling and tutoring, Kidman said.
One crucial difference compared to older models is that Utah youth courts require parents to attend hearings with the child, rather than treating the child in isolation. This creates opportunities for learning and avenues to counseling when called for, Kidman said.
Her youth court members will often recommend counseling to families. "We cannot order the family, but we can order the youth. We have youth classes we can send them to." But Kidman said that 75 percent of the time families will accept and follow through on the suggestion for family counseling.
"Often the parents are just saying, 'I'm shocked. How come my kid did this,'" Kidman said. "The parents do really want to help their youth."
"Family-focused interventions" work better than traditional juvenile justice, which tended to ignore the family and isolate the youth from it, Lubow said.
The traditional model, Lubow said, is "family-unfriendly and family-unfocused."
"We have a system that does not focus on family," he said, "that is trying to change the behavior of 14- and 16-year-olds as if they are mature adults, capable of independent decision-making."
Traditional approaches "exclude the primary socialization force in their lives," Lubow said. "We operate with a theory of change that says that a 10-minute meeting between a youth and his probation officer has more impact than what goes on in the household on a day-to-day basis."
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