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

October 4, 2011

HARRISBURG, Pa. - 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 that youth correctional facilities don't keep kids from committing crimes later, don't benefit public safety, waste taxpayer dollars and expose 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.

Since the research shows that locking youths up hasn't paid off, whether that's in a corrections center or "training school," Lubow says, it's time for Pennsylvania 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.

The report also sheds light on how youths end up in the juvenile justice system in the first place.

"The largest single source of new referrals to juvenile courts are public schools enforcing zero-tolerance requirements and using police officers to supplant the disciplinary functions that schools used to exercise."

Pennsylvania is making positive changes, the report shows. Under Act 148, counties receive 80 percent reimbursement for nonresidential programs and services close to youths' homes, and placements in local group homes. Reimbursement is less if they incarcerate.

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

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - PA