“Burning Down the House” A chat with juvenile justice reform advocate Nell Bernstein

Posted by Dr. Gregorio Melendez

Jan 14, 2015 9:30:00 AM

Nell Bernstein is a passionate advocate for juvenile-justice reform, author of the widely praised “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” and journalist who was honored with a White House “Champion of Change.” Recently, she talked with MST about a number of topics, including the reaction to the book, the role of race in the juvenile-justice system and how MST and other evidenced-based programs can be part of a comprehensive solution that addresses and changes the behaviors of juvenile offenders.


Bernstein writes in an easy-to-read style that blends facts with first-person accounts that reveal the often brutal and deadly world behind bars. The stories that can be difficult to digest at times and beggar belief at others. It is, in short, a compelling argument in favor of completely rebuilding the juvenile-prison system. When I asked Bernstein if this argument was the purpose behind writing the book, she said she did not embark on the project with the preconceived notion that incarceration was inherently wrong and that “if I had seen something other than a completely counterproductive and destructive institution, then that is what I would have wrote.” But she added that she “had written about criminal justice for years and years, seen kids destroyed by it.”   

So what evidence did Bernstein come across that strengthened her view that the prison system needed to be dismantled or at least, overhauled? Since about 90 percent of all American teenagers acknowledge having broken the law, it suggests that juvenile offending is, in large part, “a developmental stage and a created phenomenon.” Research has also showed that when juvenile offending is controlled, the “greatest predictor of adult incarceration is juvenile incarceration.” Muddying the issue more, prison sentencing is not arbitrary, but “profoundly racially driven.”

Another study found that “white youth were more likely to use drugs . . .” “black youth [were] exponentially more likely to get locked up for it.” Bernstein originally planned on writing a separate chapter on race, but later decided that race was “too all pervasive to be contained in a chapter.” This has a real impact on public perception, as well.  She says, “The public hears things like a black teenager is four times more likely than a white kid to get locked up. But what they don’t hear is that it’s for the same thing, that white kids are doing it and not getting locked up,” which leads to “an assumption that it’s a difference in criminality.”

Another strong argument that swayed her was incarcerating kids did not appear to serve even some of the most basic beliefs about prison. Namely, that it would make the community safer. “I went in assuming that there would be a dichotomy between what was good for kids and public safety, but the truth is that it’s just the reverse. If being locked up doubles the chances that you are going to escalate in criminality then [that’s] a public-safety hazard. So, we are acting against that interest.”

To Bernstein, it is the social costs imposed by juvenile incarceration that are the steepest. When I asked about the financial costs imposed by the current system, she explained, “A lot of people think that it’s because of money. The kids think they are locked up because someone is making money off them, but money is also the only thing that turned it around when it finally became unsustainable.” She maintains that state budget crises were the turning point for shutting down youth prisons. “I don’t think there is any question about that. I think the other kinds of crises matter—the lawsuits and the newspaper scandals and the advocates and the other factors matter. But a 40-percent drop [in the numbers of juveniles imprisoned] is very significant and can’t be coincidental that it’s happened concurrently with states not being able to balance their budgets.”

Following along with this thinking, however, is that if and when state budgets stabilize and there is renewed concern with juvenile crime, then we could find the trend toward closing prisons reversing. Bernstein stated that this is where she sees programs like MST coming in. “When people ask me what should be done instead [of prisons], I always talk about programs like MST.” She adds that “something like MST has such strong evidence behind it, and states brag about using it.” The problem from her point of view is that “[the states] use it with a small proportion of kids who could benefit from it and use it as a boutique alternative. So, there is this desire to do better and pat yourself on the back, but there is something in us that doesn’t want to let go of the juvenile prison.” I confirmed Ms. Bernstein’s belief that a relatively small proportion of kids who could benefit from MST actually receive it.

In regard to the influence that race has on the treatment of youth crime, I asked what she thinks needs to change. “What doesn’t?” she replied. “I took what I saw and heard and tried to see it through research . . .  and it turned out that what you would call differential treatment happened at every point in the process. I’m acutely aware of the difference in who gets arrested right now. I have 13-year-old twins. So I’m parenting two white teenagers who are entering the risk-taking years. And you know it’s just so clear to me how much more of a cushion they have than kids I have known and some of their friends.”

Her point was that while most kids might engage in acts that states have labeled criminal, such as “loitering” or “jaywalking,” it is the kids who grow up in neighborhoods with the largest police presence, that is to say, neighborhoods with a high number of black youths, whom are more likely to get that police attention at an early age. And that starts the cycle of criminalization. “That’s another thing people don’t realize. They see the black kid who is locked up for a carjacking, and what they don’t know is that his first incarceration was at 12 for something that their kids did, too.”  

I asked Bernstein whether talking about race is what is needed. “I think we need to talk about race so that we understand the profound injustices that are taking place, but I don’t think that’s going to do it, honestly. There’s the idea of the 'my child' test. Taking any decision or any practice and ask yourself if it would be acceptable if it were your child. And in a way, I think that might be a more useful push because I think that people get very comfortable in thinking that it’s not going to happen to their kids.” 

Bernstein feels that a key part of the solution will be helping people who are not directly affected by this cycle to care more about those who are being affected. This challenge, however, is more difficult because of the manner in which these imprisoned youths are treated and presented to the public. “The whole function of incarceration is to hide itself. People can’t go into locked facilities unless they have a particular reason and permission. And when they do, they see the kids are in uniform and marching and forced to hold their hands behind their back and the cells, and there is pepper spray. Whatever you think about the kids themselves and the environment is that these are dangerous kids and need to be contained.” This was why Bernstein included so many personal accounts in her book from people who had been imprisoned in their youth and why she continues to use these individuals in her public appearances.

Another big change that needs to take place, according to Bernstein, is that treatment ought to focus on building relationships. It was a key ingredient that she saw time and time again when interviewing young people who had been imprisoned and found their way to a more productive life. “This is a central message in the book that it’s relationships that rehabilitate, and that’s what kids need.” 

In the world of MST, we call this the interactions between the young person and the systems that surround him or her. The parents, siblings, extended family network, neighbors, peer groups, schools and, yes, even the police and social services. These relationships, or interactions, are critical not only to the development and maintenance of problem behaviors, but their solutions. It is a conclusion that has been reached by Bernstein, numerous researchers spanning more than 50 years and optimistically, a greater and greater number of individuals, policymakers and those in the helping professions. By working together, more and more young people who engage in criminal behavior will encounter a system that provides solutions based on just these types of relationships rather than a cage. 

To learn more about how MST works for juvenile offenders and their siblings, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform,, disproportionate minority contact, juvenile justice

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