In the United States, about 27,000 youth enter secure detention facilities everyday, and nearly one million detentions occur in a year involving 600,000 juveniles, taking into account repeat offenders. Less than one-third of these young people are charged with violent crimes, and slightly more than this are charged with status offenses (such as breaking curfew and truancy) or violating terms of probation. The rate of US juvenile incarceration is about 300 per 100,000—the highest in the world—and many youth are kept in overcrowded, expensive facilities that leave them vulnerable to abuse while in custody and increase the likelihood of their delinquency after release.

These facts point to the burden of detention and incarceration in the United States and suggest that alternatives can offer needed relief. Juvenile crime has decreased across the country over the past decade, but there has been a greater reliance on secure detention, a trend that is causing some jurisdictions to re-examine detention practices. Since the late 1990s, reformers have concentrated on developing community-based alternatives that divert youth to educational and rehabilitative services instead of locking them up. These measures ideally branch across collaborative agencies and place the responsibility of taking care of youth onto the greater community.

Data show that recent reforms have had some positive effects. For instance, juveniles placed on probation pending case adjudication are more likely to have a lower recidivism rate—that is, lower incidence of arrest or other correctional status change within a given period of time—than youth who were detained, tried through the court system, or served time in state custody. National recidivism rates are difficult to measure since states submit information based on different criteria, but it is estimated that only about 15 percent of juvenile probationers re-offend while under supervision. In bold contrast, some state and local statistics show that recidivism rates for youth who are detained can reach well over 50 percent.

Skeptics respond that youth on probation are less likely to recidivate because they are less serious offenders than juveniles who have been incarcerated (and non-violent offenders might be supervised for a shorter time). Still, the lower rates of re-offending only support the practice of using alternatives to detention and incarceration to deal with the vast majority of youths whose cases do not involve violence or other threats to themselves or society.

Community-Based Programs

The conditions of confinement in US detention centers and prisons tend to neglect the sociological and physiological needs of juveniles, leading many to re-offend upon their release. Working with, among others, state and district attorneys, public defenders, and probation officers, juvenile court judges are able to weigh information and assign youth to programs that avoid unnecessary confinement.

Researchers have found that the best interventions come out of individualized assessment of the factors around criminal activity instead of solely judging a youth’s actions. This is especially true for juveniles with substance abuse or mental health issues. About two-thirds of all youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from such problems, and some jurisdictions are able to provide treatment in a hospital setting or residential facility.

Short-term approaches that have dramatically reduced detention and recidivism include electronic monitoring and home confinement with unscheduled visits by probation officers. Day and evening reporting centers are also safe and effective alternatives, and can cost just one-fourth as much per juvenile as detention facilities. Often for youth who need to be supervised after leaving detention, these centers offer short-term tutoring, counseling, life skills training, and recreational activities, all structured around a tight schedule.

In addition, some facilities create safe environments for longer-term programs. Non-secure and secure shelters may be appropriate for young offenders who cannot return home and require more personalized attention. Residential programs in regional facilities—for treatment, education, and rehabilitation that can last up to a year—create a non-punitive environment for small populations of juveniles to receive extensive services.

Restorative justice, a constructive tool for rehabilitation following detention or incarceration, promotes public safety, accountability for crimes committed, and juveniles’ competency to understand the adjudication of their cases. Restorative justice aims to rebuild relationships among delinquents, their victims, and communities. In this process, juveniles who have committed offenses appear before panels and reach an agreement on a method of restitution, often in the form of a community service project that incorporates the youth’s abilities and interests.

California’s Urgent Need for Reform

In California, state youth detention centers and prisons, longtime candidates for massive overhaul, reveal the high costs of a system of incarceration that fails to serve the needs of juveniles. California has the highest youth incarceration rate in the United States—more than double the national average—and its youth prisons have a history of poor services, beatings by staff, lengthy lockdowns, and use of psychotropic medications and cages to restrain inmates. Under the California Youth Authority (CYA)—now known as the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)—the system as of 2004 had an annual budget of $387 million and imprisoned inmates at a cost of $71,000 per ward each year.

At long last, reform is on the march. Since 2004, when DJJ housed about 6,000 youths, court-ordered reforms have cut that number by two-thirds; the number will eventually go below 1,500 as California turns supervision of youth offenders over to counties by 2011. Reforms have brought about improvements in the conditions of confinement, health services, and other areas. Still, the costs of incarceration are astounding: California in 2008 will spend an estimated $554 million on a juvenile population just one-fifth the size of the 1996 population.

A Future of Alternatives: Research, Reason & Choice

Observers of the US system are increasingly able to draw on research about which alternatives to detention and incarceration benefit youth and their communities. Besides a recognition among experts that juvenile detention centers and prisons need reform, reports have shown that boot camps are counterproductive, well-intentioned restorative justice activities can fail, and training programs have missed the mark. Overall, however, the US public is open to alternatives that can reduce crime and protect youth and society.

But passing reform measures into law depends on many factors, including economic and political climates. In tough economic times, ballot measures for large-scale spending on programs that may seem “non-essential” often get voted down. And a public skeptical of officials looking to score political points may turn away from initiatives that could create as many problems as they attempt to solve. Also, judges who make the final decisions about diverting youth to alternative programs have to stand for re-election, further muddying the landscape. So when making choices on such issues, US citizens are asked to weigh many considerations both outside and within the walls of juvenile confinement to try to bring about better alternatives for their youth and their communities.

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