There is a growing consensus across the country — and across the aisle — that the US is in desperate need of criminal justice reform to end the era of mass incarceration. Politicians along the political spectrum discuss the need to end mandatory minimum sentences, reduce the use of private prisons, and put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline. An issue that is less often discussed is the need for reform in the juvenile justice system, despite the fact that spending time in a juvenile detention facility is the single greatest factor in predicting adult incarceration.
Research shows that incarcerating youth leads to high recidivism rates and an overall decrease in public safety, in addition to being less cost effective than investing in education or community-based rehabilitation programs.
In the US, most kids have committed acts of delinquency that could land them in a secure detention facility. And while most of these juveniles simply stop committing criminal acts as they mature, those who are caught and sentenced to time in juvenile prisons become more likely to commit crime later in life. In fact, youths who have spent time in juvenile prisons have a stunning 70% chance of being arrested or returned to a secure facility in the year after their release.
To make matters worse, placing youths in secure detention facilities harms their ability to enter and remain in the workforce, and reduces the likelihood of high school completion, which both contribute to a higher likelihood of criminal behavior. So while detention facilities are supposed to help us rehabilitate the nation’s most at-risk youth, they actually end up doing more harm than good for the juveniles who get roped into the system. They also do little to improve public safety. Throughout the 1990s, there was a nationwide panic about so-called “super-predators” wreaking havoc on American cities. During this period, many states passed harsher sentencing laws, leading to a sharp increase in incarcerated youth. The juvenile crime rate peaked in 1994 then started to fall across the board, dropping at the highest rate in states that did not pass tough-on-crime laws for juveniles. And despite an overall decrease in juvenile crime, the number of kids detained in secure facilities continued to rise.
Discoveries about the harmful effects of incarceration have caused the number of juveniles committed to detention facilities to steadily decrease over the past 18 years, from nearly 78,000 juveniles in 1999 to around 35,000 in 2013. Many states are trying to find a juvenile justice system that works, by decreasing the number of juveniles held in detention facilities and trying out new community-based rehabilitation programs instead.
The “Missouri Model” is hailed by juvenile justice experts as a way for states to save on the high cost of mass juvenile incarceration centers. Instead, juvenile offenders are placed in small, low-security rehabilitation centers near their homes, most of them with fewer than 10 inmates. And despite a decreased reliance on secured facilities, Missouri has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the country. This model uses evidence-based programs such as Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), Multisystemic Therapy (MST), and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) which aim to keep children out of detention centers altogether, and instead provide support and resources to strengthen kids’ connections with their families and communities. In MTFC programs, youths are placed in specially trained foster homes for short periods of time rather than in large detention facilities. Several other states have started replacing the old model with these methods, and it has proven to be largely effective: after Florida started using primarily MST and FFT programs in lieu of incarceration, juvenile offenders were 35% less likely to end up in adult prison, and taxpayers saved an estimated $41 million over four years.
The state of Rhode Island has taken several steps in reforming the juvenile justice system, and has succeeded in decreasing the number of children in state custody. Between 2004 and 2013, the annual total number of youth held at the Rhode Island Training School, the state’s only secure residential facility for juvenile delinquents, declined from 1,069 to 498. The state has also been relying increasingly on alternatives to formal court hearings such as the Truancy Court and the Juvenile Drug Court, which provide educational services, enroll youth in drug treatment programs as needed, and provide court supervision for adolescents rather than detaining them at a residential facility. In addition, there are 34 Juvenile Hearing Boards (JHBs) throughout the state of Rhode Island — in March 2017, Providence was the most recent Rhode Island community to establish one. The Providence JHB is made up of seven members appointed by the City Council, with the goal of keeping youth out of the formal court system and referring them to community resources. JHBs allow juveniles accused of nonviolent misdemeanors to be diverted from family court. The boards can impose sanctions such as counseling or required community service hours rather than more harmful punishments including probation or detention.
Despite the fact that Rhode Island has made some marked improvements in decriminalizing juvenile offenders, the state still has a long way to go before it can boast a completely fair and effective system. For instance, although research suggests that JHBs result in fewer placements in residential facilities and reduced recidivism compared to the formal juvenile court system, in 2013, the most recent year with data available, JHBs in Rhode Island only heard 404 cases, while the RI Family Court heard over 4,000. Additionally, many JHBs have strict rules about which types of offenses, and offenders, they are willing to hear. For instance, many JHBs only review cases for first-time offenders, which automatically places anyone with previous offenses in the formal court system, regardless of the type of crime. So, although JHBs in Rhode Island may be good for first-time offenders, they do little to help prevent the most vulnerable children from being dragged even deeper into the system. And in practice, a majority of the cases heard by formal Family Courts are for non-serious crimes: only 4% of the offenses referred to the RI Family Court between 2000 and 2014 were violent crimes.
Additionally, the presence of alternative hearing boards have not been sufficient to address racial and economic disparities present in the state’s juvenile detention centers. In 2013, Black adolescents made up 26% of the population at the RI Training School despite only comprising 6% of the population in Rhode Island, and Hispanic youth made up 38% of population at RI Training School compared to 21% of the total population. Likewise, youth from the four “core cities” (Providence, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Central Falls), where over two-thirds of the children in Rhode Island below the poverty line reside, are more likely to be referred to Family Court than children in the rest of the state.
These disparities will continue to persist as long as RI ignores the root causes of juvenile crime, including the absence of a stable home life. RI is famous for having one of the most dismal child welfare systems in the country – one report from a non-profit called The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform called Rhode Island the “child warehousing capital of America.” Indeed, Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which operates both the foster care system and the Rhode Island Training School, has a history of corruption and inefficiency, which has put vulnerable children and communities in an even graver risk of institutionalization. Nevertheless, the Rhode Island General Assembly has cut funding for the DCYF by $132 million over the past 10 years, when adjusted for inflation. So although the state has paid lip service to the importance of relying less on juvenile incarceration, they have shown little commitment to addressing the causes of juvenile delinquency and instituting alternatives to youth detention.
Although it is commendable that Rhode Island has established alternatives to the formal court system throughout the state and shown a sharp decrease in the number of children housed in secure detention facilities, the state needs to go further to address the roots of juvenile delinquency. Rhode Island should be investing money into child welfare programs and community resources to prevent crime among the most vulnerable part of the population instead of focusing on rehabilitating or punishing the kids who get caught up in the system. We need to lock up fewer children — but we also need to help them before they are caught committing crimes in the first place.