Prosecutors, youth correction officials call to end youth detention

On any given day, approximately 48,000 juveniles in the U.S. are confined to youth correctional facilities as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. The average cost per person is about $214,000 — a 44% increase since 2014.

Yet youth incarceration is associated with poor outcomes, including harm to educational attainment, reduction in lifetime wages, poorer future health outcomes and increased recidivism, according to a 2019 report by the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute (JPI).

Indeed, incarceration as an adolescent increases a child’s likelihood of committing another crime as an adult by at least 22%, according to research.

And, it is crucial to keep in mind that the burden of juvenile incarceration tends to fall disproportionately on children of color.

“Black, Native American, and Latinx youth are incarcerated at five, three, and 1.7 times the rate of white youth, respectively, with disparities increasing as youth move deeper into the system,” reads the report.

Now, as many as 40 youth correctional administrators and prosecutors from more than 30 U.S. jurisdictions have called for the closure of all juvenile detention centers in the U.S.

“As professionals charged with promoting the public’s safety and well-being, rehabilitating young people and seeking justice, the time has come for us to speak out and oppose the continued operation of these facilities.”

What alternatives to juvenile incarceration are there?

How else could that average of $214,000 per kid per year be spent? Ideally, it would appropriately handle crime while reducing recidivism and doing no overall harm to the child involved. It’s a lot of money to work with, assuming that the political will exists to decarcerate.

The JPI provided several recommendations to states and counties that are considering alternatives to youth incarceration, including:

  • Diverting the funding currently used for youth incarceration to community-based options
  • Expanding the community’s overall investment in youth
  • Removing all barriers to reducing reliance on incarceration as a tool after juvenile offenses (barriers such as rigid sentencing guidelines and lack of reentry training)
  • Developing and implementing a system that actively addressees racial disparities in youth incarceration

But the main point is reducing or eliminating youth incarceration altogether. One prosecutor who joined in the statement admitted that she is a hammer and that makes everything look like a nail. “Why would we want to treat our children that way?” she asked.