Report Calls For Major Overhaul of Youth Imprisonment Methods

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a new report released Oct. 21, researchers from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) in Cambridge and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) are calling for an end to the existing youth imprisonment model, citing its emphasis on confinement and control. Researchers claim these methods exacerbate youth trauma and inhibit positive growth while at the same time failing to address public safety.

The report systematically reviews recent research in developmental psychology and widespread reports of abuse to conclude that the youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and — for the small population of youthful offenders who require secure confinement — smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation, according to a statement issued by the PCJ.

Authored by leading youth justice researchers and former youth correctional administrators, the paper argues, programs work best when youth are able to remain in their home communities, participating in rehabilitative programs or in smaller, home-like facilities that promote opportunities for healthy decision-making and development, according to a statement by the PCJ. The report advises correctional agencies to provide a range of options depending on the youthful offender’s individual needs, from smaller secure facilities to non-custodial programs.

The report also points to high annual costs related to youth imprisonment, which are on average roughly $150,000 per individual. Despite this considerable investment, however, researchers found that youth recidivism rates remain close to 70 percent. Also included in the findings are profiles of several state agencies that have pursued alternative models, finding community-based approaches can reduce recidivism, control costs and promote public safety.

“Youth in trouble need guidance, education, and support, not incarceration in harmful and ineffective youth prisons,” said PCJ Senior Fellow and former Director of Juvenile Corrections for Washington, D.C., Vincent Schiraldi, co-author of the report, in a statement. “We now know from research and on-the-ground experience that youth prisons are not designed to best promote youth rehabilitation. This report offers concrete alternatives for policy makers across the country to maintain public safety, hold young people accountable, and turn their lives around.”

“Juvenile justice systems must have the clear purpose of giving each youth the tools he or she needs to get on the right path to a successful adulthood and to reintegrate into the community,” added Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who also co-authored the report together with the third co-author Miriam Shark. By closing traditional youth prisons and leveraging increased political will to reform the country’s dependence on incarceration, McCarthy further argued, states can use the savings to begin implementing a new, more effective approach to serving young people.