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Report: ‘Lock ‘em Up’ Approach to Juvenile Justice Doesn’t Work

October 4, 2011

LANSING, Mich. - When youths act up, a new report says, locking them up is the wrong thing to do in most cases.

The report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides evidence - based on decades of research, along with new data - that putting youths behind bars don't keep kids from committing crimes later. The report also finds that the practice doesn't benefit public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars and exposes young people to violence and abuse.

In nearly every case, says Bart Lubow, the foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group director, the "crimes" committed are minor.

"The majority are either charged with nonviolent offenses or are there primarily for acts of defiance relative to an adult."

Several states already are moving away from relying on juvenile incarceration, the report notes, mainly because of budget woes or scandals over abuse in institutions. It finds that more than 50 facilities have been shut down since 2007 nationwide.

Since the research shows that locking youths up hasn't paid off, Lubow says, it's time for Michigan and other states to adopt policies to slow the sentencing stream and invest in alternatives that focus on treatment and supervision.

"Comprehensive, well thought-out strategies in state juvenile-justice systems that will not only ensure that there's fewer kids locked up but that will ensure that there's less crime, and less money spent, and the kids have better odds of being successful in adulthood."

For the few dangerous teens, he says, large institutions should be replaced with small, treatment-oriented facilities. That's one of the report's six recommendations to help states change systems, including investing in nonresidential, community-based programs.

Michelle Weemhoff, senior policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, says the state is well-positioned to create smaller, more community-based programs. Michigan has a county-based juvenile justice system, and counties can be reimbursed by the state for a large percentage of their program costs.

"If we can maintain or enhance investments at the community level, then the funding mechanisms that we currently have - either through the county child care fund or other funding sources - allow us to then match those resources that are invested locally."

Weemhoff says Wayne County's juvenile justice program has been highlighted among the best in the nation for the way it has been able to restructure its finances in the past ten years.

The full report, "No Place for Kids, The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration," is online at aecf.org.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI