A new article from the New York Law School Law Review examines the problems with the juvenile justice system and offers solutions for a more productive youth justice system. “When the Cure Makes You Ill: Seven Core Principles to Change the Course of Youth Justice,” calls the extremity of youth justice to trial and shares statistics of the negative effects the system has on children.
Our current juvenile justice system is “iatrogenic,” says author Gabrielle Prisco. Being in the system worsens outcomes for troubled teens and more often than not, results in violence and recidivism -- the very same outcome it tries to remedy.
Prisco outlines seven core principles to change the course of youth justice:
Principle One: Treat Children as Children
Research shows children lack critical thinking skills and the ability to fully understand risk management. “The region of the brain that is the last to develop is the one that controls many of the abilities that govern goal-oriented, ‘rational’ decision-making, such as long-term planning, impulse control, insight, and judgment,” writes Prisco. Children who are incarcerated in an adult jail are thirty-six times more likely to commit suicide because they are not properly cared for in a youth facility, yet thirty-nine states in the United States presently allow juveniles to be tried in adult court and sentenced to life without the chance of parole (JLWOP).
Principle Two: Fund and Use Only What Works
Although research shows that youth who are detained or incarcerated are more likely to reoffend than those referred to community-based supervision, many jurisdictions still lack adequate community-based options. Our over-reliance on punitive approaches comes at great human as well as financial cost – $60,000 per youth per year.
Principle Three: End Racial and Ethnic Inequality
The juvenile justice system has deep and longstanding racial and ethnic inequalities. The term “disproportionate minority contact” (DMC) is often used to describe the situation, however, it goes further than that -- the youth justice system is almost exclusively populated by children of color. The unequal racial breakdown of arrest, detention, and incarceration does not reflect the racial breakdown of crimes, and research indicates these inequalities worsen the further a child moves into the system.
Principle Four: Equal Justice and Culturally Competent Services for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning Youth
LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the youth justice system, with fifteen percent of incarcerated youth nationwide identifying as LGBTQ. LGBTQ youth are at risk of sexual abuse, harassment and violence with significant psychological stress to youth who are forced to conform to gender roles that do not align with their core gender identity. Youth justice facilities frequently respond to these issues of safety by placing LGBTQ youth in segregation or confinement which many teens experience as a deeply traumatic form of punishment.
Principle Five: Share Power and Resources with Families and Communities
Traditionally, families and communities have been excluded and even blamed in the youth justice system, causing parents of system-involved youth to feel demonized and mistreated. However, research shows that youth who have been incarcerated are more likely to maintain post-release goals and handle the challenges of re-entry if they maintain positive relationships with their loved ones during incarceration.
Principle Six: Justice is Not for Sale
For-profit corporations are increasingly operating juvenile justice facilities – more than fifty percent, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Privately owned prisons cost more than government facilities and possess limited amount of independent and public oversight.
Principle Seven: Always Have Strong Outside Eyes
Children who are institutionally confined are more vulnerable to neglect and abuse, with multiple constitutional violations performed against children in many jurisdictions. There must be external influencers and resources assisting facilities.
The reality of the current youth justice system is grim, however, Prisco provides possible solutions to these issues: The juvenile justice system must operate as a child-serving system and should reflect the distinct social, emotional and developmental needs of children. Community-based continuums of supervision, programs and services must be funded and incentivized as an alternative to incarceration or detainment. Instead of asking lingering questions of race and gender equality in the system, facilities must identify the best practices proven to actively combat the issue to effectively reduce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities through research and training. The youth justice system must invest in local knowledge and programs with strong family and community involvement to support youth. All residential facilities for children should be government operated entities. Children should not be susceptible to the sentence of juvenile life without parole. The commitment of the public and policymakers to speak on behalf of youth in the justice system is imperative for change.
Kat Shannon is a Digital Communications intern at Prichard Communications, where she assists on several accounts, including Reclaiming Futures. She is a student at the University of Oregon studying Public Relations, with a minor in Business Administration. She is an Oregon native and a California dreamer.
*Photo at top by Flickr user publik16
Updated: March 21 2018