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New Research: “Tough on Crime” Approaches Harm Youths and Society

PHOTO: Research increasingly points to the harmful consequences of giving juvenile criminal offenders adult punishments.
PHOTO: Research increasingly points to the harmful consequences of giving juvenile criminal offenders adult punishments.
October 25, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas –Several recent national and Texas studies warn that "tough on crime" attitudes are behind the times – and the science – when it comes to dealing with juveniles.

Treating them as adults can traumatize them and harms their rehabilitation chances, according to Ian Kysel, whose American Civil Liberties Union report concludes that still-developing teens who have veered off course require special services the adult system cannot provide.

"Young people who are at a particularly vulnerable point because they're in a phase of rapid brain development – they're isolated, and denied educational programming, substance-abuse (and) mental-health treatment, and adults who can serve as positive role models."

Texas is in the middle of reforming its juvenile justice system, emphasizing community-based treatment over incarceration when possible. Still, the state continues to hold a greater percentage of its law-breaking youths in adult facilties than most other states. Since jails typically separate youths from adults, teens often spend months in what amounts to solitary confinement.

The use of seclusion and restraints also are still commonplace at many county-level juvenile-detention facilities despite state guidelines designed to minimize the practice.

A new study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition finds that not all local authorities interpret state guidelines the same way. While some facilities reserve the practice for severe infractions such as violent assaults or appropriately limit seclusion to brief "time-outs," report author Benet Magnuson, a policy attorney for the coalition, says others place youths in solitary who simply displayed disrespectful attitudes.

"There's wide variation across the state in how it's used: what kids are going into solitary, why they're in solitary, what they're doing in solitary, how long they're staying there."

Magnuson thinks politics is part of the problem: too many local authorities wanting to project a tough-on-crime stance are ignoring research showing that troubled youths can be damaged further by certain old-school practices. He wants lawmakers to provide more specific directives to local institutions.

Magnuson says the latest science confirms that traumatic experiences in childhood greatly increase the chances that teens will wind up in trouble with the law.

"Half have experienced a significant traumatic event in their past – witnessing gun violence, being a victim of physical or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence – and at least a third also have a diagnosed mental illness."

When the justice system fails to provide therapeutic resources, he adds, youths often are re-traumatized, which locks in behavior patterns that can threaten public safety for years to come. The coalition also released a report this week focusing on locked-up Texas girls – “Girls’ Experiences in the Texas Juvenile Justice System,” – finding that inconsistency in disciplinary methods was the chief barrier to their rehabilitation.

Three other related studies are online: “Community Solutions for Youth in Trouble,” “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States” and “Juveniles in the Texas Adult Criminal Justice System.”

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX