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WI Seeks Alternatives to ‘Locking Up’ Juvenile Offenders

October 4, 2011

MADISON, Wis. - 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 dollars and exposes young people to violence and abuse.

Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, agrees that locking up young people can do more harm than good.

"But I think large institutions are a challenge. Wisconsin is working hard to take the juvenile correctional facility at Lincoln Hills and really turn it into a productive program, and I think hopefully we'll see some better results there."

Moeser, who has 34 years of experience in juvenile-justice work, says large facilities can be unproductive both for the young people incarcerated and the community.

Bart Lubow, the Casey foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group director, says the report raises concerns about 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."

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 improve the system.

Moeser says the report's recommendations to move away from relying on juvenile incarceration have great merit.

"I think that's what changed a lot in Wisconsin, is that we're seeing much more effort at the local level to keep kids in the community for less serious offenses. I think that's both productive for them and it's cost-effective as well for the communities."

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

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI