Why we ought to shut down juvenile prisons
Nell Bernstein makes the bold assertion that all juvenile prisons should be completely shut down in her 2014, nationally acclaimed book, Burning Down the House. In April, Bernstein spoke at the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development conference, where she applauded the 50-percent drop in juvenile incarceration since the mid-’90s. The numbers are down 50 percent, but does that mean the glass is half full or half empty? According to Bernstein, it doesn’t really matter since the contents of juvenile prisons are toxic to children. “We’re administering this poison to a smaller group of kids, [so] pragmatically, of course [that] matters immensely. But if the goal is not just reform, but justice, we’ve miles to go before we rest.”
What Bernstein proposes instead of juvenile incarceration is not revolutionary—just a mere shifting of our focus. Instead of concentrating on what a young person in trouble with the law “deserves,” which is a punitive idea of accountability, we would do well to instead focus on what he or she needs. Our inability to make this shift in how we see young people, Bernstein says, is part of the answer to her question, why is Multisystemic Therapy (MST) still the exception rather than the norm?
The current system is broken, we know that. But Bernstein asserts the challenge isn’t just to build a better mousetrap, but to reexamine every aspect of how we treat delinquency. And to do that, to fully adopt a program that treats delinquent youth in their full humanity and their human connectedness to family and community, we need to start by seeing them as fully human. Regardless of race, class or crime committed.
We thank Nell for her powerful and profound words and invite you to watch her talk.