I have been working most of my adult life to reduce the number of kids locked up in jails. It has been an uphill battle in most communities, especially in the last decade when we have passed legislation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. A new report is out by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation that supports my belief that juvenile hall is not rehabilitative and is ineffective in preventing future criminal behavior.
The report, “No Place for Kids – The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration” compiles decades of research and data on juvenile incarceration across the US and presents some strong arguments against its effectiveness.
Unlike adult jails, juvenile facilities are intended to rehabilitate, not punish. Juveniles are only to be locked up if they are deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk. Unfortunately, kids are often locked up for other reasons. This study found that only 12 percent of the 150,000 youth placed in juvenile detention nationally committed serious violent crimes. Additionally, youth placed in juvenile hall are five times more likely to be incarcerated for subsequent offenses than youth who are placed in a community supervision program. We have found this to be true at Bill Wilson Center, where 90 percent of the youth who are diverted from juvenile hall and placed in our residential program report no further involvement in the juvenile justice system.
The report also argues that reducing incarceration does not undermine public safety. We have seen this right here in Santa Clara County, where over the past few years we have been reducing the number of kids in juvenile hall, yet juvenile crime rates continue to drop. The same is true for the State of California. We are not only wasting the opportunity to help these kids, we are wasting money. Each juvenile probation officer costs $200,000 with benefits. We can hire three to four counselors at Bill Wilson Center for the same cost. Using best practices to serve youth in the community is more cost-effective and has better outcomes for juvenile offenders.
Possibly saddest of all, there is a disturbing trend of violence and abuse in U.S. juvenile correctional facilities. A 2008 study found 13,000 claims of reported abuse between 2004 and 2007. Another national study of confined youth reported more than 3,000 cases of youth being victimized sexually by staff or peers while incarcerated. It’s no wonder kids come out of juvenile hall worse off than when they went in when you combine all of these system failures.
We need to invest more in community services and decrease our reliance on juvenile hall. Let’s keep the non-violent offenders out of juvenile detention and provide the needed services to make them more productive, better adjusted, and help them do better in school. The long-term outcome: fewer adults in prison, as these youth become self-sufficient and law-abiding adults.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth. Under her leadership, Bill Wilson Center works to prevent poverty by connecting youth to employment, education, housing, and healthy relationships.