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

October 4, 2011

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - 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 doesn't keep kids from committing crimes later. It also finds that the practice doesn't benefit public safety, wastes taxpayer money 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, whether that's in a corrections center or "training school," Lubow says, it's time for 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 that 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.

Carole Cochran, director of the South Dakota "Kids Count" project, points to some new, creative methods to handle juvenile offenders.

"Some of the counties in South Dakota have started some teen courts, and I think that is an interesting way to deal with some of the issues that young people are getting into, to have a jury of their peers."

Another way to help youths in trouble, she says, is to offer help to their parents.

"South Dakota certainly has a lot of single parents raising children, and if you are working, raising teenagers, we know how difficult and exhausting that is. And so, communities and other organizations need to step up and help each other, I think."

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

Jerry Oster, Public News Service - SD