Reducing Overreliance on Youth Incarceration
Exploring Effective Alternatives to Confinement
Effective Alternatives to Youth Incarceration, a new report from the Sentencing Project, contends that the key to reducing overreliance on youth incarceration is expanding alternatives that keep more young people — even those who have committed serious offenses — connected to families, schools and their own communities.
The publication, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, identifies interventions that offer alternatives to incarceration for youth with serious offending histories. The author, Dick Mendel (also a Casey Foundation collaborator), provides examples of how major cities have adapted these models to reduce youth incarceration and promote community safety.
Recommended Alternatives to Incarceration
Mendel outlines six options aimed at improving the lives of youth and reducing young people’s likelihood of reoffending:
- Credible messenger mentoring programs deploy adults who share characteristics with young people — such as their hometown or culture — to serve as positive influences, typically as part of a multi-pronged intervention strategy.
- Advocate or mentor programs offer intensive case management and individualized case plans to help youth and their families achieve specific goals.
- Family-focused, multidimensional therapy, such as Multisystemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy, employs trained therapists who work closely with young people and their families to address harmful patterns and situations.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy programs offer young people intensive outreach and connections to education, employment and other relevant services.
- Restorative justice interventions bring together people who have caused harm and those they have harmed. Participants talk about what happened and collaborate on an appropriate solution — with accountability and fairness — outside of a more adversarial court proceeding.
- Wraparound programs provide integrated and coordinated care for youth who are at risk of being removed from their homes due to serious or escalating behavior.
The report also describes the characteristics needed to make these and other alternative-to-incarceration programs successful, including addressing problematic policies and practices at the system level that have the potential to derail even the best-designed interventions.
Incarceration Reduction Case Studies
Effective Alternatives shares case studies with results data, including the following examples:
- In New York City — the year after being assigned a one-on-one credible messenger — 77% of participants, who were youth on probation, remained arrest-free.
- In Baltimore, nearly all of the 352 youth served by a cognitive behavioral treatment and mentorship model had a history of prior arrests. Yet, 79% who completed the first two years of the program were not arrested and 95% were not incarcerated for a new offense.
- In San Francisco, a restorative conferencing diversion project for 13- to 17-year-olds accused of felonies, such as burglary and assault, reduced the rearrest rate of participants by 33% in the year after enrollment relative to peers in a randomly assigned control group who were prosecuted in court.
Mendel writes, “The most essential ingredient for reducing overreliance on youth incarceration is the determination to explore every option to keep young people at home safely, providing youth with the support and assistance they require to avoid further offending, participate in the age-appropriate rites of adolescence and mature toward a healthy adulthood.”