Why Incarceration Is Generally Ineffective in Juvenile Cases
According to data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), almost 60,000 minors are confined in jails and other detention facilities across the United States on any given day. Over the course of a year, as many as a half a million juveniles spend some time in detention. Study after study, however, shows that not only is juvenile detention an ineffective strategy to modify the behavior of young offenders, detention actually serves to worsen their behavioral problems, typically making them lifelong.
The Evidence Against Juvenile Detention and Incarceration
An extensive study conducted by The Sentencing Project concluded that juvenile incarceration not only has a negative impact on public safety but also negatively affects the mental and physical well-being of minors, limiting their access to education and employment opportunities and frequently making them victims of physical abuse:
- Data compiled from across the United States consistently shows that juveniles who are incarcerated or spend time in detention have higher incidences of re-arrest, repeat offenses (in juvenile or adult courts), and further incarceration or detention. The study found that simply holding a youth in detention until his or her case was decided significantly increased the likelihood that the juvenile would become a repeat offender. Data consistently showed that the longer the stay in juvenile custody, the greater the chances of recidivism. Additionally, when youth detention rates go down, there’s no corresponding increase in juvenile crimes.
- Data collected by the ACLU also confirms that many of the youth who are subject to detention face serious physical and mental health challenges, including injuries, illness, depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies. Studies show a direct connection between time spent in a juvenile detention facility and a shorter life expectancy.
- Research also shows that juveniles who are put in detention are generally more vulnerable and likely to be physically or sexually abused by staff in the detention centers. Over a 15-year period, more than half of the states across the country disclosed physical and/or mental abuse of juveniles by employees in detention centers.
The Reasons Detention Doesn’t Work
Research reveals the following conclusions indicating why detention is generally inappropriate for young people:
- Most delinquency is a product of brain immaturity—It’s generally accepted that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25.
- Detention impedes psychological growth and maturation—People learn how to act as responsible adults by being in the company of mature adults.
- Delinquency is commonly fueled by childhood trauma—Incarceration doesn’t treat the trauma. In fact, detention is typically a new source of trauma, opening old wounds.
Alternatives to Juvenile Detention
The study by The Sentencing Project found that a number of alternative approaches have shown significant promise with youthful offenders:
- Community-based programs, such as Youth Advocate Programs, family-based therapy, youth employment programs, and “wraparound” programs, where professionals work directly with troubled juveniles to identify needs and provide necessary services
- Supervised release programs, where juvenile offenders are subject to home detention, electronic monitoring, juvenile reporting centers (similar to probation), and/or local treatment programs
- Community service programs, where youth offenders can work side-by-side with solid role models and gain experience making a positive impact in the community