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.
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.