Are Adult Decisions Harming Kids in Juvenile Justice?

04/15/2015 06:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

Something is terribly wrong with how this country manages young people who get into trouble. We lock them up.

Children — virtually all children — will make immature decisions during their formative years. They are, after all, children, and therefore, well, immature. We know from neurological science that until about age 25, human brains are not yet fully developed in those areas that contribute to making good decisions: the ability to regulate emotion, control impulses, foresee consequences and balance competing desires. As they develop, kids push boundaries and experiment, and they are often easily led by peer pressure. Many, if not most, young people will occasionally go beyond simple mischief and do things that are against the law. Some will cross lines that bring them into contact with law enforcement.

That's when we see even more troubling decisions — not the impulsive, immature decisions of adolescents, but rather the supposedly objective, rational decisions and actions of adults. We should expect adults to respond to the immature acts of children with responses that will help them grow. Instead, we grown-ups have tolerated wrong-headed policies that focus too much on punishing kids and not enough on helping them develop into responsible adults. Thanks to these punitive policies and practices, we have seen decades of harmful decisions that hurt children, tear families apart and do little to make communities safer. Even worse, the brunt of these decisions is felt most strongly among youth growing up in neighborhoods plagued by high levels of poverty and unemployment and an absence of opportunity for young people seeking a brighter future.

The adults who are responsible for making decisions when a child first gets into trouble have the awesome power of changing the life trajectory of young people, too often without understanding or considering the long-lasting impact of their decisions when a child stands before them.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation video "Decisions" illustrates how ill-considered public policy drives poor decisions, by limiting the options available to the well-intentioned adults in the juvenile justice system. Every day, these policies put children on a path that impedes their development and will decrease the odds of their success in life.

Several studies, including this one by the American Sociological Association, show that youth arrested during their high school years are twice as likely to drop out of school as youth with identical backgrounds and self-reported misbehavior who were not arrested. Other studies have found that low- and moderate-risk youth who were confined were five times more likely to be incarcerated for subsequent offenses than young people who were returned to the community. Research also shows that youth who were incarcerated at age 16 or younger have a 26 percent lower chance of graduating high school by age 19 and are significantly less likely to gain employment.

Moreover, the risk of incarceration is not equal for all youth. African-American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than their white peers, and Latino and American Indian youth are nearly three times more likely to be confined.

Most people don't spend much time thinking about where we confine these children; in fact, most such institutions are hidden away from public view. And we have invented many euphemisms for them: training schools, reform schools, youth development centers, and so on. I choose to call them what they really are: youth prisons. They are stark, loud, crowded, ugly places, places that research shows can trigger and exacerbate the effects of trauma that many incarcerated children have experienced. There are bars, guards and conditions that are nothing less than dehumanizing. Year after year, investigation after investigation has exposed inhumane, brutal treatment, including beatings, sexual assaults and prolonged isolation.

Yet even if we tried to improve youth prisons — make them colorblind, make them appear more humane — this would still be insufficient. In her revealing book, Burning Down the House, Nell Bernstein writes that "rehabilitation happens in the context of relationship." Further, she writes, "Meanwhile, virtually every aspect of our juvenile prison system — designed to disrupt and deny relationships, not foster or forge them — runs counter to this fundamental aspect of human nature."

We need a different approach to managing young people who get into trouble, one that does not rely on incarceration. The time has come to reject the failed model of youth prisons. Many jurisdictions are showing the way by closing youth prisons. They have replaced them with appropriate community-based supervision and treatment for most youth and, for those children who require a period of secure care because they pose a serious threat to public safety, creating smaller community-based facilities staffed and operated with the express purpose of preparing these youth for successful return to their homes. The focus is squarely on treatment, rehabilitation and preparation for successful adulthood, and there is strong evidence that this approach to youth justice does a much better job of protecting public safety: recidivism rates for youth released from such facilities are much lower than for youth released for youth prisons.

We expect young people to learn to not let emotions cloud their judgment, to rein in their impulses, to reflect on the consequences of their actions before acting. Surely we should expect no less of ourselves. Surely our public policy and the decisions we make every day should reflect our understanding of the developmental needs of children and adolescents, and recognition of the failures of our over-reliance on incarceration. Surely we should see youth prisons through the eyes of a parent, and ask if we'd want one of our own children locked away in such a place.

We have the opportunity to develop a juvenile justice system that contributes to rather than detracts from equal opportunity, one that does not discriminate on the basis of race or background or income. A juvenile justice system that acknowledges that adolescents who misbehave should not be locked away in harsh prisons, and that they would do better with proven alternatives to incarceration. A system that sees young people — all young people — as resources with untapped potential, worthy of opportunities and expectations to grow into successful adults. And one that acknowledges that while some kids may indeed need a period of secure care and rehabilitation, our current reliance on youth prisons is a national disgrace: expensive, ineffective, inhumane and contrary to our deeply held beliefs about the fundamental value and potential of each and every child.