Our friends at The Sentencing Project recently released an incredible new report that we wanted to bring to your attention – Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence. We absolutely recommend giving this report a full read. However, we also acknowledge that not everyone has the time to take such a deep dive. As such, we wanted to provide this brief overview of the report’s key findings and recommendations.
Youth Incarceration Fails: How?
Incarceration does not reduce delinquent behavior. Youth released from confinement have high rates of rearrest, new juvenile court or adult convictions, and reincarceration. A 2011 state-by-state review found that 70%-80% of youth who left programs were rearrested within two or three years. Longer stays in custody also lead to increased recidivism.
Incarceration impedes young people’s success in education and employment. Incarcerated youth are less likely to graduate high school – a Michigan study found that detention reduced graduation by 31% – enroll in or complete college and have lower employment and earnings in adulthood.
Incarceration does lasting damage to young people’s health and well-being. A 2003 national survey of youth in custody found that two-thirds had physical health care needs, including dental, vision, or hearing issues (37%); acute illness (28%); or injury (25%). They are far more likely to experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts – and the longer the confinement, the more this is true. Incarceration is also associated with shorter life expectancy.
Juvenile facilities are rife with maltreatment and abuse. Systemic or recurring physical, emotional and sexual abuses in state-funded youth facilities by staff or peers have been proven. Most incarcerated youth have witnessed abuses – often repeatedly.
Racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration are vast and unjust. A 2011 research review found that “minority youths are more likely than whites to be stopped, arrested, and referred to court by police;” and “less likely than whites to be diverted from the system.” A 2019 study found that the post-judgment detention rate for Black youth was 3.6 times the rate for non-Hispanic white youth, and 3 times the rate for Tribal youth.
Youth Incarceration Fails: Why?
Brain immaturity fuels delinquency. The brain does not fully mature until age 25. Brain areas dedicated to impulse control, weighing consequences, and regulating emotions are still developing, while the part of the brain focused on sensation-seeking and risk taking is unusually active. As their brains develop, most of youth age out of lawbreaking.
Increased maturity is tied to ending delinquency. Young people’s ability to stop delinquent behavior is tied to developing “psychosocial maturity.” Incarcerated youth develop maturity at far slower rates than comparable peers who remain in the community.
Early childhood trauma often feeds delinquency in adolescence. A 2014 Florida study found that justice-involved youth were four times as likely to have experienced trauma than the general population (50% versus 13%) and less likely to have not had adverse childhood experiences (less than 3% versus 36%). Up to one-third of incarcerated youth suffer from PTSD.
Incarceration can retraumatize youth and make them less likely to succeed. As a result, “Higher rates of incarceration may actually create more crime.”
Youth Incarceration: Recommendations for Moving Forward
Expand the use of diversion – An exhaustive 2015 study in Texas showed that adjudicated youth who were allowed to remain in the community on probation were 30% less likely to be arrested for a subsequent offense than comparable youth sent to state corrections facilities.
Invest in alternatives to incarceration – Invest in evidence-based and other promising alternatives to incarceration. These alternatives should include programs to supervise youth at home in the pre-trial period as well as home-based dispositions (akin to sentences in the adult justice system) for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent in court and might otherwise be placed in residential custody. In fact, the report cites several examples of alternative to incarceration models that cost less than $25,000 per youth, as compared with one year of youth confinement that is estimated to cost an average of $214,000.
Measure results – Track and report the results of alternatives to incarceration in terms of public safety (re-arrest, new adjudications or convictions, and subsequent incarceration) and youth success (education and well-being). Examine results to ascertain differences by race, ethnicity, and gender.
Limit the use of pre-trial detention – Adopt the eight core strategies of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, including detention screening instruments to ensure rational and objective criteria are used to make detention decisions, expanded alternatives to detention programming, and expedited case processing. The model was adopted by more than 300 counties that are home to one-third of the nation’s young people. A 2012 study found that counties reduced their detention populations by over five times as much as non-participating counties in their states, with no negative impact on public safety.
Prohibit incarceration for low-level offenses – Enact rules prohibiting – or at least creating a strong presumption against – incarceration in cases where youth are adjudicated delinquent for less serious offenses, including all status offenses (like running away from home, underage drinking, or curfew violations that would not be crimes if committed by adults), probation rule violations, and misdemeanors, as well as many non-violent felonies.
Create financial incentives to limit incarceration – Too often, states foster an overreliance on incarceration by paying the full cost of confinement while offering little or no support for local alternatives. As Ohio and other states have shown, states can reduce the use of incarceration by employing funding formulas that encourage the use of community- and home-based alternatives.
Use objective decision-making guidelines – Develop and follow response grids that guide decisions and limit confinement in response to probation rule violations, as well as dispositional guidelines that recommend residential custody only for youth adjudicated for serious offenses who pose a high risk for re-arrest according to objective risk assessment instruments.
Limit lengths of stay – The preponderance of research shows that lengthy stays in correctional custody do not improve recidivism results. Yet long stays carry an enormous financial cost for taxpayers, and they disrupt young people’s opportunities to experience important rites of passage on the path to healthy and productive adulthood.
Focus explicitly on race in efforts to reduce confinement – Long experience shows that efforts to reduce confinement often exacerbate disparities; reforms benefit Black youths and other youths of color less frequently than their white peers. However, a recent 12-site initiative led by The Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that by placing a clear and determined focus on race and ethnicity, justice systems can substantially lower the number of youths placed in residential custody, and can do so in a way that benefits youth of color at least as much as white youth.
Many thanks to Richard Mendel and The Sentencing Project for developing this important report on youth incarceration and its alternatives.
Additional thanks to LCCR volunteer, Maureen Sheahan, for assembling this synopsis.