Juvenile Injustice, Part One

Going by the numbers, America is heavily invested in jailing our youth: on average, $88,000 per year is spent to keep a child in prison1 – far more than is spent to keep a child in school2. The establishment of a criminal record, no matter how trivial the initial offense, severely limits future opportunities and indeed makes it highly likely that the child will fail to break out of the cycle of poverty as an adult3, instead propagating a poor man’s samsara. As new research sheds light on the adolescent brain and its continuing development well beyond the traditional threshold of eighteen years4, we must revisit what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, especially in the case of the most vulnerable among us.

People are complicated creatures, and they undergo a complicated adolescent phase as their bodies and minds transition from those of children to those of adults. The effects of this mental development are self-evident: teenagers are prone to impulsive behavior; are more likely to lose their cool; and are less likely to consider long-term consequences5. Most people age out of delinquent behavior on their own6; however, those who are caught and compelled to enter the justice system have their maturation interrupted7. Detention, even if it’s just for one or two weeks before a trial, disrupts every part of a person’s life – family, school, work – and derails development8. Teens processed through the juvenile justice system are less likely to complete high school; are more likely to be incarcerated as an adult; and are more likely to suffer from depression and self-harm later in life.9

Liberals have always been on the side of a more compassionate, restorative approach to justice, but fiscal conservatives should also jump on the bandwagon. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Department of Youth Services (DYS) spends an average of $68,272 per youth per annum on detention.10 The lack of clear data make cost comparisons challenging, but analysts estimate that alternatives to incarceration could save 50% or more in detention costs per year.11

As part of our commitment to research and develop policy about issues that are important to Millennials in greater Boston, Roosevelt@Boston has investigated the state of juvenile justice in the Commonwealth and found it progressive, with room for improvement. The DYS already administers Alternative Lockup Programs (ALP) to find secure placements for youth arrested when court is not in session.12 Various District Attorney’s offices (e.g., Essex County) administer Juvenile Diversion Programs, which offers youths a chance to participate in counseling, education, and community service projects in lieu of being detained at all.13

Massachusetts has also successfully piloted a number of incarceration alternatives as part of their partnership with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).14 For example, in Worcester County, the DYS’ Central Region Reception Center has placed over 400 youth in foster care settings while their cases were pending. There were no failures to appear in court for these cases, and all of the youth were able to return to their home school15. Suffolk County has since opened a reception center16, and more are planned around the state17.

For the vast majority of youth, who are at low to medium risk of exhibiting more concerning behavior18, detention is a dehumanizing experience that negatively impacts quality of life far out of proportion to the original offense. With some exceptions, it fails to achieve its end goal of deterring future criminal behavior; and it is often completely unnecessary – new alternatives to incarceration are more humane and more cost-effective.

It appears the tide is turning against the traditional, punitive approach to juvenile justice ushered in by the “tough on crime” movement. Massachusetts is a national leader, but there is far more that can be done. Part two of this blog post will focus on advocates for juvenile justice – organizations and individuals – as well as ways that you can get involved.

About Roosevelt@Boston
Roosevelt@Boston is a local chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a national organization whose goal is to recommend policy to government and political leaders, as well as increase engagement among young people. In particular, Roosevelt@Boston is committed to creating opportunities for young people to learn about policy issues, research and write about policy solutions, meet with political leaders, and positively influence local communities. Their members constitute a grassroots voice of Millennials in the region, and it is their goal to be a credible source of Millennial opinion on topics ranging from affordable housing to police militarization and more.

In 2016, the Roosevelt Institute published the Next Generation Blueprint for 2016, in which they defined priorities among key areas such as education, the economy, and human rights. Roosevelt@Boston reviewed the topics and initiatives suggested by the Blueprint and decided to focus on juvenile justice reform in Massachusetts.

  1. Justice Policy Institute. “The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense.”
  2. National Center for Education Statistics. “Public School Expenditures.”
  3. Amy L. Solomon. “In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment.”
  4. Johnson, Sara B., Robert W. Blum, and Jay N. Giedd. “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.”
  5. NBC News. “Teen’s brains hold key to their impulsiveness.”
  6. Barry Holman and Jason Ziedenberg of Justice Policy Institute. “The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. This number was derived by comparing the number of youth served by DYS in 2014 to the budget spent by DYS in 2014. According to their 2014 Annual Report, DYS detained 2349 youth. According to the FY2014 Budget Summary, the DYS was allotted $160,372,207. Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS). “2014 Annual Report.” Mass.gov. FY2014 Budget Summary: Department of Youth Services.
  11. Jeff Bernstein. “Unlocking Potential: Examining the Funding of Juvenile Detention and Effective Alternatives in Massachusetts.”
  12. MassBudget’s Children’sBudget. “Alternative Lockup Program.”
  13. The Official Website of the Essex District Attorney’s Office. “Juvenile Diversion.”
  14. J.D.A.I. Sites Report – Massachusetts Newsletter 2013.
  15. The Official Website of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “The History of JDAI in Massachusetts.”
  16. “Detention Placement Instrument Results, Fiscal Year 2013.”
  17. The Official Website of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “The History of JDAI in Massachusetts.”
  18. Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. “Massachusetts Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative Dashboard. Statewide Overview: October – December 2015 Update.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *