Slamming the door on juvenile justice

Baltimore – When it comes to juvenile justice, it’s time for North Carolina to start thinking outside the box. Outside the pen, the slammer and the hoosegow, too.

It’s time to recognize that confining troubled teens in large, prison-like correctional institutions is the wrong answer to youth crime.

Sadly, Gov. Mike Easley and his juvenile justice department haven’t seen the light. Instead they’re proposing to spend $90 million scarce tax dollars to build three new and improved youth prisons.

Last fall, reports emerged that staff at the Swannanoa Youth Center had allegedly molested three teens. In May, the state auditor documented dire deficiencies in all five of the state’s juvenile training schools — infrastructure hazards, weak education, inadequate counseling and deep staffing problems.

Before the ink on that report was dry, the Easley administration stepped forward with its $90 million construction plan. If the existing youth prisons were no good, the logic went, we’ll just go and build some better ones. [Last week, an advisory council to the Department of Juvenile Justice recommended shelving the construction plan].

A better mouse trap (or teen trap) isn’t what delinquents need. And it’s not what Tar Heel taxpayers deserve.

Large correctional facilities are expensive. They breed violence and abuse. And they invariably suffer high recidivism after graduates return home.

Institute of Government study found that 88.5 percent of youth released from state custody were charged with a new criminal offense within three and a half years. Recidivism rates of 50 percent to 90 percent are routine for youth facilities nationwide. That’s why Barry Feld, a leading juvenile justice scholar, calls training schools and youth prisons "the one extensively evaluated and clearly ineffective method to treat delinquents."

Better answers

What’s the alternative to youth incarceration? The answer is twofold: lock up fewer kids (and for shorter periods); and build smaller facilities for those who do require incarceration.

Twenty years ago, Michigan’s Wayne County (Detroit) took a group of serious youth offenders and it flipped a coin: some youth went to state correctional institutions and the rest were placed in intensive probation and counseling programs. The probation youth committed few crimes in the period they might have been confined. Incarcerated youth committed many more offenses once they returned home. After two years, the two groups had committed roughly the same amount of crime.

In other words, incarceration didn’t reduce crime at all. Yet it cost three times as much as the probation programs.

Since 2000, Wayne County has assigned serious youth offenders to local "care management organizations" rather than routinely shipping them to state corrections. The care management groups assign most teens to intensive home-based "wraparound" programs or community-based group homes. Incarceration is way down, costs have dropped, and only 1 percent of supervised youth last year committed a new felony.

When it created the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention four years ago, North Carolina likewise sought to reduce the population of confined youth. New rules were enacted allowing incarceration only for teens convicted of felonies or multiple misdemeanors.

Yet for three years the youth corrections population barely budged. Admissions to youth facilities dropped. But because authorities sharply increased the average period of confinement, daily population fell only from 901 in 1998 to 811 in 2001. The population did decline substantially in 2002, but the department’s latest annual report notes that "the length of stay will continue to increase." So the progress may be short-lived.

The department’s rationale for the longer stays — that they "will lead to further rehabilitation" — is absurd given the state auditor’s finding that treatment programs are "disorganized, lack resources, and/or were perceived to have a second or third class status."

Some serious youth offenders require confinement, of course. But juvenile justice experts increasingly concur that small correctional homes are more effective than large institutions.

"Small is extremely important," says Ned Loughran, head the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. "The kids coming into juvenile facilities need a lot of specialized attention…With large (facilities) it’s like going to a large urban high school. Kids get lost, and these kids can’t afford to get lost."

Missouri closed its trouble-plagued training schools 20 years ago and erected a network of small (30- to 40-bed) facilities and day programs that keeps youth offenders close to home. This allows Missouri corrections staff to provide family counseling and extensive transitional support as youth leave corrections — key gaps noted in the North Carolina auditor’s report.

Today, only 8 percent of teens released from Missouri youth facilities are incarcerated as adults within three years, far below the rates in most other states. And Missouri spends less on youth corrections than most states (including North Carolina).

Missouri’s success, like that of Wayne County, is not isolated. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that most youth offenders can be safely supervised in intensive home-based programs, with lower costs than incarceration and equal or better outcomes. For youth at extreme risk, small youth-friendly facilities are far more effective than large institutions.

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