How Youth Incarceration Undermines Public Safety
Reviewing the Evidence
A recently released report summarizes research showing how incarceration harms young people and undermines public safety. Published by the research and advocacy organization The Sentencing Project with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report also reviews research on programs and policies that reduce incarceration in ways that decrease delinquent behavior and improve young people’s well-being.
“The evidence leaves no doubt: Incarceration is a failed strategy for rehabilitating youth and protecting the public,” says Richard Mendel, the report’s author and a senior research fellow at the Sentencing Project. “Many programmatic and policy alternatives are available that cost less and achieve much more, both in terms of reducing delinquent conduct and boosting youth success.”
Lasting Damage for Incarcerated Young People
According to Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence, multiple studies show that incarceration does not reduce delinquent behavior. In fact, confinement most often results in higher rates of rearrest and reincarceration when compared with probation and other community alternatives. A long-term study of youth in Seattle, for example, found that adolescents who were incarcerated were nearly four times more likely to be incarcerated in adulthood than comparable peers who were not confined.
Incarceration causes substantial long-term harm to youth, including reducing the likelihood of high school graduation. A 2019 paper cited in the report tracked the educational outcomes of youth in Philadelphia and Phoenix who were referred to court for serious offenses. It found youth who were incarcerated, then released, were less than half as likely to graduate high school as comparable peers who were never incarcerated.
Moreover, incarceration does lasting damage to young people’s physical and mental health. For example, a national survey found that any length of adolescent incarceration was “associated with higher odds of having worse adult health.” And young people who were incarcerated for less than one month had higher rates of depression in adulthood than comparable peers who were not incarcerated.
Black and other young people of color disproportionately experience the harmful effects of incarceration. These youth are confined before their court dates and after they have been adjudicated delinquent at far higher rates than their white peers. The disproportionate representation of young people of color in the early stages of the justice system — which many studies attribute, at least in part, to biased decision-making — has a snowball effect that leads to substantial cumulative disadvantages in later decisions about incarceration in correctional facilities.
Why Incarceration Fails To Improve Behavior
The report cites recent research on adolescent brain development and trauma that helps explain why incarceration is the wrong response in most delinquency cases. The brain does not fully mature until age 25, which makes lawbreaking and other risky behaviors more common during adolescence. As the brain develops and young people grow older, most are no longer involved in illegal or delinquent activity. Sixty-three percent of the young people who enter the justice system for delinquency never return to court on delinquency charges.
New research indicates that young people’s ability to end delinquent behavior is tied to their progress in developing “psychosocial maturity,” which includes the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, weigh the consequences of actions, consider other people’s perspectives and resist peer pressure. Incarceration, however, delays young people’s psychological maturation, hindering positive behavior change.
Studies have found that young people who become involved in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have suffered childhood trauma than other youth. Up to one-third of youth in secure custody suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Exposure to multiple types of trauma can impede children’s healthy brain development, harm their ability to regulate themselves and heighten the risks of delinquent behavior.
Incarceration, often a traumatic experience for young people, can exacerbate the difficulties experienced by youth who have been exposed to childhood violence and other adverse experiences. Moreover, surveys of incarcerated youth consistently report high levels of violence and abuse during their confinement.
Reducing Juvenile Incarceration
Research shows how youth incarceration can be reduced through alternatives to confinement and reforms in juvenile justice policy and practice. Several types of community-based alternative programs are especially promising, with powerful evidence of effectiveness.
For example, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) annually offers intensive support to and advocacy for 20,000 young people with justice system involvement or other risk factors in more than 100 sites across the country. Studies have found that participating in YAP reduces involvement with the justice system, improves young people’s well-being and costs less than incarceration.
Several policy and practice reforms cited by the report can help reduce incarceration while improving youth outcomes and enhancing public safety. Among the most promising approaches is addressing alleged delinquency outside of the formal justice system by reducing the number of young people arrested for less serious offenses and diverting a far greater share of youth following arrest.
Recommendations To Reduce the Use of Incarceration
Why Youth Incarceration Fails includes nine recommendations to state and local juvenile justice systems to reduce their reliance on incarceration:
- Expand the use of diversion from formal case processing.
- Invest in evidence-based and other promising alternatives to incarceration.
- Track and report the impact of alternatives to incarceration on public safety and youth success.
- Limit the use of pretrial detention by adopting the core strategies of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative®.
- Prohibit incarceration for low-level offenses, including all status offenses, probation rule violations and misdemeanors, as well as many non-violent felonies.
- Create financial incentives to discourage the overuse of incarceration and encourage the use of community- and home-based alternatives.
- Use objective decision-making guidelines to limit the use of confinement.
- Limit lengths of stay in correctional custody, which reduces costs to taxpayers and avoids disrupting young people’s lives without compromising public safety.
- Focus explicitly on racial equity, which can substantially lower the number of young people placed in residential custody and do so in ways that benefit youth of color at least as much as white youth.