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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Hall

Redesigning youth justice

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

On Sept. 30, 2021, President Biden proclaimed October 2021 as National Youth Justice Action Month. In this proclamation, he specified that this month should be dedicated to “seeking justice for our youth and modernizing our juvenile justice system” by “shift[ing] our approach from a default stance of incarceration to one of prevention.” President Biden emphasized how youth incarceration environments are rife with abuse and sexual assault, and how the environments actually make it harder for youths returning to the outside world to lead positive and healthy lives afterward.

A report on alternatives to youth incarceration titled, “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” explains how youth prisons “that emphasize confinement and control are devoid of the essentials required for healthy adolescent development” because they “provide too many of the elements that exacerbate the trauma that most confined youth have already experienced and reinforce poor choices and impulsive behavior.” Rather than dangerous prison environments that prevent substantial growth and aggravate negative behaviors, youths need positive and safe interactions with adults and access to educational and employment opportunities that will lead to positive development and a slim likelihood of reoffending. Under the youth prison system, data collected in 2011 revealed that “70 to 80 percent of incarcerated youth are rearrested within two to three years.” Not only is youth incarceration unsuccessful at rehabilitation, but it is also expensive. The report stated that, as of 2016, the last youth prison in Connecticut had an annual budget of $53 million, yet it only housed forty-three boys. Therefore, youth justice needs to be redesigned to promote the government’s interest in fiscal responsibility, the public safety interest in decreasing recidivism and the humanitarian interest in creating safe environments for our youths.

The report details several alternatives that are being introduced across the country, which should be adopted by more states. For example, in Oregon, youth offenders are placed with a community family that is trained to “provide treatment and intensive supervision.” This community-based service has proven to be successful in reducing the recidivism rates of these youth offenders, as well as their incidents of violence. Additionally, organizations such as the Casey Foundation, through its implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), have been able to reduce youth secure detention admissions by 57% and promote community-based alternatives to confinement. Most remarkably, in 2020, California historically passed SB 823, which initiated the closure of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice and its youth prisons. Now, the National Center for Youth Law is working to ensure that the youth that would have been part of the now-abolished system are not unjustly transferred to adult criminal court.

One alternative method that has received a lot of attention for its success in rehabilitating youth offenders is known as “The Missouri Model.” This approach focuses on removing the “small minority” of youth offenders from the community “to protect public safety” and placing them in small facilities close to their homes and families where they are safe and able to receive the individualized, rigorous treatment and education they need. This method varies greatly from traditional juvenile facilities focusing on isolation, utilizing excessive and potentially dangerous restraint practices and readily offering punishments. The Missouri Model’s focus on the young people’s futures is perhaps its most notable attribute. During their confinement, Missouri youth are given both educational and employment opportunities that provide them with the skills necessary to succeed on the outside. The program also often includes family therapy as well as pre-release planning, which involves working with the youth’s family members to create detailed plans for tasks like school re-enrollment, applying for jobs and signing up for extracurricular activities. This dedication to creating a positive pathway for each young person after their time in confinement is finished is likely a large contributor to the success of the model.

President Biden’s budget for 2022 includes a proposed $800 million dedicated to “repurposing juvenile detention facilities to focus more on youth development” and “develop[ing] research-based solutions to steer kids away from detention and toward more positive alternatives.” While his proposal seems to be pushing for the implementation of alternative methods that are both more successful in youth rehabilitation and more humane, it is important to not get distracted by fanciful promises made during “National Youth Justice Action Month.” Instead, it is vital to keep striving for reform to support our youth and to combat the notion of the school-to-prison pipeline.

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