Time to Rethink Youth Incarceration

Posted by Sue Dee

May 5, 2016 11:06:17 AM

For their sake and ours, we need to stop locking up kids

A talk at the recent Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development conference in Denver made me think of a show I love, “The West Wing.” In one of my favorite episodes, after hearing of the death of a secret-service agent, a politician wonders out loud, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.”

We all want to live in safe communities, free of crime. As a parent, this feels like an increasingly urgent need as I send my children more and more out into public without me. Levels of risk I was willing to accept in the past are now too scary to tolerate. Before, I have ignored the news of local crime, and now, there are times I have to force myself to stop thinking about it. 

So, I join the public in the wish for a silver bullet. We want safety. We want something to guarantee it. Crime. Boy, I don’t know. What are we going to do?

Well, what if I told you that we can change the future of crime and save taxpayer money at the same time? And guess what. We don’t have to do something. We need to stop doing something.

Here it is—we need to stop locking up our children in detention centers and instead link them with evidence-based practices like Multisystemic Therapy

Lock them up now and be prepared to lock them up later 

That’s it. Locking up a kid in detention increases the risk of adult incarceration. Think about that. Incarcerating kids for something they do as a kids, makes it more likely they will engage in adult crimes and need to be jailed for those.

When young people are incarcerated, they are less likely to graduate from high school. Not having a high-school diploma is a huge risk factor for engaging in future crime. A 2013 study found that kids who were jailed were 39 percent less likely to finish high school than other kids from the same neighborhood.

When we lock up kids, we deprive them of education, prosocial activities, developing adult skills, as well as the support and love of family. We traumatize them with detention and greatly increase the likelihood they will become adult offenders. From that same 2013 study: Imprison a young person and we’re talking about ramping up by 67 percent the likelihood he or she will be going to jail by age 25.

And, let us not be fooled by the labels our governments and private institutions are using to disguise detention centers. “Treatment homes,” “rehab centers,” “training centers”...if a kid is there non-voluntarily as a result of getting into trouble, it is detention. If it is detention, it is making us unsafe by increasing the risk of this kid committing crimes as an adult. According to the researchers, Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle, Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as an adult, we’re not talking about shoplifting and purse snatching. Incarcerate them as adolescents and the odds are high they will be committing “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” when they are older.

As a mom, taxpayer, social worker, fellow human, I call us to action. Contact your legislators, judges, local news...let’s end this practice of locking up kids. Let’s get funding for programs that actually decrease juvenile offending. We want safe communities. Let’s stop doing what gets in the way. “Crime. Boy.” We know what to do.

To learn more about what makes MST such an effective intervention for at-risk youth, download this white paper

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform