Reducing Overreliance on Youth Incarceration

Exploring Effective Alternatives to Confinement

Posted August 9, 2023, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Two young black men review paperwork in an office setting.

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.

Learn about youth incar­cer­a­tion in the Unit­ed States

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.”

Read the full report

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