How Youth Incarceration Undermines Public Safety

Reviewing the Evidence

Posted January 18, 2023, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A young, Black teenage boy smiles into the camera, while sitting in a classroom setting. The boy wears braces and his hair is styled in braids.

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.

Learn more about reduc­ing juve­nile delinquency

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