In the U.S., youth are routinely sent to detention centers and then incarcerated because they’ve been picked up for status offenses such as truancy or running away from home—and a large number of those affected are young girls. Two researchers say there are safer and more effective ways to help them.
Earlier this month, a young female was arrested and ushered into our criminal justice system. The cause? According to local reporting, she was charged with being “[b]eyond [p]arental [c]ontrol.”
The young girl had run away from home the previous day and, rather than escorting her home, law enforcement arrested her and took her to Idaho’s Kootenai County Juvenile Detention Center.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In the United States, youth are routinely sent to detention centers and then incarcerated due to status offenses such as truancy, running away or “being beyond parental control.” While most of the incarcerated youth spend time behind bars because of the harm they caused to person or property, status offenders are only penalized because of the age at which they commit these otherwise mundane “offenses.”
In fact, if they were just a few years older, there would be no legal consequences at all.
While the circumstances or final consequences of this particular girl’s decision to run away are unknown, if her case resembles that of the median youth held for a status offense, she will be detained for 21 days. And if she is adjudicated and committed, she will be incarcerated for an additional 63 to 106 days.
The decision to incarcerate youth who commit status offenses has contributed to a significant proportion of the youth population behind state bars today. According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), in 2015, approximately one in five youth detained in Nebraska were incarcerated due to a status offense.
According to the same data, a staggering 45 percent of youth detained in West Virginia were held for status offenses—less than 26 percent of that total were incarcerated for actually harming anyone. Even in New York, a state known for its liberal leadership, 17 percent of detained youth were held for status offenses that same year.
What’s worse, girls are disproportionately harmed by the policy. In 2015, one in four female youth held in private facilities were incarcerated for such offenses and approximately one in nine female youth were mandated residential placement for the same cause. Comparatively, only one in twenty-five boys were held.
Empirical evidence suggests runaway youth are an especially troubled group who need our compassion and help, rather than to be confined to the walls of a jail cell. Research using national survey data provides evidence that females, youth of lower socioeconomic status and young adolescents who have experienced neighborhood victimization (such as witnessing someone being shot or having their house broken into) or personal victimization are more likely to run away.
While arresting these children is not the answer, leaving youth on the streets is also not ideal. A 2017 review of the current research summarized that runaway youth are at an increased risk of sexual victimization, substance abuse, mental health issues and physical abuse: “[t]hese youths often flee their homes to escape abuse in their home environment, only to emerge on the streets, and be exposed to consistently high levels of sexual and physical victimization, in addition to constant exposure to violence.”
Indeed, a 2012 study including 350 runaway youth found that 39 percent reported experiencing physical abuse, 14 percent reported sexual abuse and over a third reported neglect. Poor family communication and worries about family relationships had the largest reported impact on runaway youth depression, anxiety and disassociation.
The good news, however, is that states have options besides incarceration or leaving at-risk young people on the street and instead can choose more compassionate and effective alternatives when young people run away from home.
Community-based diversion and prevention programs present a safer, more effective way to get to the heart of family problems, trauma or simply a poorly thought-out decision. Rather than compounding underlying issues, research shows that these intervention and diversion programs are far better at preventing future delinquent behavior.
Moreover, these programs provide more flexibility than detention and correctional centers and can engage entire families in the growth process at an appropriate level for the individual’s risk.
Most importantly, they rebuild the systems that support youth rather than isolating them from the very people and institutions that know them best.
And that’s an alternative that is cheaper and better for us all.
Emily Mooney is a criminal justice research associate with R Street Institute. Nila Bala is the associate director of criminal justice policy for R Street and a former Baltimore, Maryland public defender. They welcome comments from readers.
A new study released by Pew Public Safety Performance Project found that the number of residential facilities holding youth in custody within the juvenile justice system fell 42 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2016—largely because fewer juveniles have been arrested.
The number of residential facilities holding incarcerated youth has significantly decreased– largely because fewer juveniles are being arrested–according to newly released data from the Juvenile Residential Facility Census Databook.
The databook found that the number of residential facilities holding youth in custody within the juvenile justice system fell 42 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2016.
“The decline comes in large part because of the significant reduction in the number of youth in custody,” wrote Dana Shoenberg, senior manager of the Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP) at the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Erinn Broadus, a criminal justice research associate, who reported on the data.
Between 2000 and 2016, the number in residential placement dropped 58 percent, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ PSPP described a growing body of research showing that the costly practice of confining juveniles is generally no more likely to reduce recidivism than is keeping them in their own homes for treatment and that confinement can actually increase the likelihood of certain youth re-offending.
However, evidence-based, in-home treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, have been shown to produce substantial reductions in recidivism, said authors.
The study also found that in recent years, some states have found ways to make more effective use of resources once dedicated to residential juvenile facilities.
For example, Kansas policymakers determined that group homes in that state had failed to improve outcomes for youth in their care and that those adjudicated delinquent for misdemeanors made up too large a share of out-of-home placements.
As a result, Kansas has closed one of its two remaining correctional facilities and more than 90 percent of its group home beds. That allowed the state to shift millions of dollars annually to community-based services for youth remaining at home.
In addition, falling crime rates and reductions in residential placement may have contributed to recent facility closures.
Those factors can also be catalysts for further change, increasing the resources available for reinvestment in a continuum of evidence-based supervision and services, Shoenberg and Broadus concluded.
“When carried out in ways that support youth, families, staff, and communities, closures can be an important component of state and local juvenile justice reform strategies.”
Treating youth convicted of a crime within the community is far more beneficial than incarcerating them, a new study released by the Justice Policy Institute finds. The authors say communities are safer and more economically stable when youth offenders are diverted to community-based supervision programs.
Treating youth convicted of a crime within the community outweighs incarcerating them, a new report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) argues.
Researchers contend that convicted youth who are served in the community are significantly less likely to re-offend than if they are confined—regardless of their offense type—making everyone in the community safer.
Assigning young people to community-based supervision is also significantly more cost-effective than confinement, and it mitigates the disproportionate impact of confinement in the justice system on youth of color, authors wrote.
Researchers gathered data from young people directly impacted by the justice system, public defenders and prosecutors, advocates and policy-makers and paired with the the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) to explore how to build more effective approaches to serve youth involved in a violent crime in the community.
In the last two decades, largely in response to this body of research, there has been a seismic shift in the way confinement is used, the study noted.
According to federal data trends reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, since 1997, there has been a nearly 50 percent decline in the number of confined youth.
Today, communities are safer as a result, according to the authors.
However, the benefits of safely reducing the rate of incarcerated youth have not accrued equally. The reductions in the youth incarceration rate have been concentrated among nonviolent offenses—70 percent of the population decline.
In addition, despite plummeting numbers of youth in confinement, racial and ethnic disparities have actually increased.
Therefore, it “is clear that reducing the number of youth of color in confinement requires an intentional racial justice strategy that extends beyond simply changing policies and practices that drive confinement,” authors said.
The study made the following policy recommendations for states to reduce incarcerated youth and move them towards a safer, community approach to justice:
Repealing state laws requiring a mandatory term of confinement or an automatic transfer to adult court. Mandatory minimums are resource intensive. Being charged as an adult is connected to a host of problems; youth are more likely to re-offend or be harmed while in the adult system, spend time in solitary confinement, and provide challenges to correctional leadership to serve youth effectively while keeping them safe.
Changing practice standards that needlessly increase length of stay. In 2015, more than 31,000 youth were committed out-of-home, with nearly one-quarter of youth being confined for longer than 6 months. Adjusting practice that reduces an individual’s length of stay would allow more young people involved in violent crimes to transition into the community.
Expanding available diversion options for youth involved in violence. Every year, nearly one million youth are arrested and experience the negative consequences of justice system involvement.
Narrowing the number of offenses or behaviors that require confinement. By limiting the scope of confinement eligibility, some states have increased their community supervision.
Providing appropriate supervision and support for young people in the community. Effective probation supervision for youth involved in violence is possible.
In California and across much of the U.S., children with cognitive problems routinely languish in custody for months or years while judges determine whether they’ll be able to pick up the skills needed for a fair trial. Some legislators in California are seeking to limit such detentions.
In early 2013, Jesus G. had been living at the Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles for more than a year, though he’d never been tried or found guilty of a crime. In 2011, Jesus’ younger brother accused him of molesting him, but Jesus denied the allegations. The clock stopped on his case when a doctor decided that, due to his hallucinations and immaturity, he wouldn’t understand what was happening in court, reports Mother Jones. When someone like Jesus is declared incompetent to stand trial, the state can detain him while trying to improve his mental functioning and knowledge of court procedures. While California law limits the amount of time adults can be confined—often in hospitals—during this process, no such cap exists for children.
In California and across much of the U.S., children with cognitive problems routinely languish in custody for months or years while judges determine whether they’ll be able to pick up the skills needed for a fair trial. Most states don’t have comprehensive programs to help these kids become “competent,” as the courts call it, referring to someone who has the ability to assist their attorney with their defense and has a solid understanding of the charges and proceedings against them. In one egregious case, children were asked to watch episodes of Law & Order to prepare for their trials. California Assembly member Mark Stone says that about 300 of the 7,000 youth in California’s juvenile justice system last year were not getting the help they needed to become competent for trial. State legislators are considering a bill that would limit how long kids are detained after a judge finds them mentally unfit. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year after critics protested that dangerous, emotionally unstable teens might be let loose.
New research into how the brain works is contributing to innovative strategies for reducing recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration.
In the courtroom, testimony or evidence about abnormalities or damage to a defendant’s brain has been used to assess the level of responsibility for criminal behavior. But new research into how the brain works is contributing to innovative strategies for reducing recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration.
The Mind Research Network, a non-profit based in Albuquerque, N.M., has been on the forefront of discovering how the brains of psychopaths and violent offenders differ from the average person’s.
Psychopaths make up a substantial part of prison population and are 20 to 25 times more likely to be in prison than non-psychopaths.
Dr. Kent Kiehl, a lead researcher for the network, says the research can help target appropriate treatment for example, for youths who have demonstrated violent behavioral traits.
“This will improve our ability to predict which kids are high-risk, and how to individually tailor treatment to help kids change,” he told The Crime Report.
Using a portable MRI machine, Kiehl and his team studied and scanned the brains of roughly 4,000 violent juvenile and adults offenders from 10 prisons in two states over the last decade. The process yielded the largest neuroscientific database of violent offenders in the world.
One focus of the research was to examine the differences in the brains of juveniles who have committed homicides and juveniles who haven’t.
“Scanning is the easy part,” said Kiehl about the intensive process that goes into examining each inmate he studies.
In addition to scanning, Kiehl and his team conducted intensive clinical interviewing which examined IQ, past trauma and socioeconomic history, as well as personality.
Kiehl and the Mind Research Network have partnered with the Today=Tomorrow Program at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC). in Madison, Wi., a cognitive behavioral treatment program that tries to help juvenile offenders with psychopathic traits, according to its website, by educating “youth of the connection between their thoughts, attitudes, and emotions to their behaviors; to identify ‘thinking barriers’ and substitute responsible thinking, and to increase pro-social thinking and skills through modeling and role-play practices.”
The Today=Tomorrow Program at the MJTC has garnered some attention in recent years and has been covered in-depth by several outlets like NPR and The Atlantic.
Similarly, a study by the Douglas County Juvenile Department in Wisconsin found an 85 percent decrease in recidivism after one year among 48 subjects who went through the program, and a 94 percent decrease in recidivism after two years with a smaller sample size of 12 subjects.
The program is not likely to make these troubled juveniles into model citizens, but it tries to teach them a practical form of empathy that can help them avoid the impulse to commit violent or criminal acts.
Kiehl has been scanning subjects in the program three times during the process of treatment to understand mechanisms of change in those who don’t come back for repeat offenses.
Research like Kiehl’s is helping neuroscientists map out which brain regions should be targeted for treatment that will translate to improved behavioral and life outcomes.
This approach has been likened to working on a muscle that has atrophied from not being used.
“That’s the holy grail, to show which therapies and treatments adjust and help these circuits adapt,” Kiehl said. “What is the brain mechanism of change, and is it sustainable?
“That’s what we’re working on now. And if we figure that out we can get carefully derived measure of treatment efficacy.”
The concept of brain age and maturity is at the heart of Kiehl’s work with juveniles and psychopaths. Neuroscience can be a way to help determine how mature a person’s brain is more accurately than their numerical age.
Kiehl says that this is the essence of neuro-prediction.
“If you can measure the brain components that predict something rather than a proxy, like impulsivity, that circuit will indicate someone’s future impulsive behavior better than self-reports or other ways of measurements,” he said.
“Brain age is a better predictor if you re-offended than your date of birth.”
Drawing conclusions about people’s behavior based on brain imaging presents challenges and pitfalls for neuroscientists.
One danger involves a term called reverse inference, which can amount to researchers overestimating how much a certain area of the brain is involved or responsible for determining a specific behavior or cognitive process.
Kiehl argues that having strong data that can allow for good predictive power helps lessen the need for interpretation, and therefore creates the possibility of errors that stem from things like reverse inference.
Scientists may disagree about the exact function and role of the amygdala, for example, which has been linked to fear and aggression. But, according to Kiehl, “an amygdala deficit is an amygdala deficit. We can academically argue about the interpretation, but what’s really important is the data.”
Other than the obvious benefit of reducing future violent acts and the damage that ripples from them, the kind of treatment offered at the MJTC can ultimately be much cheaper than it is to incarcerate people in the long run if reoffending can be reliably reduced.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency found, “Over the 4.5 year follow–up, the return on the investment in the MJTC amounted to over 700 percent.”
Dr. Daniel Martell, a forensic expert at Park Dietz & Associates, and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A., says that even though neuroscience is starting to tackle problems that were once thought to be unsolvable, like how psychopathy can be effectively treated, it has a long way to go before it’s ready for widespread implementation.
“We get great findings, but the problem is getting researchers to actually replicate those findings,” said Martell.
“We don’t really even have first generation studies to be replicated, so that’s where people like Kiehl are contributing.”
Martell went on to say that in terms of overall progress, “we’re still crawling.”
Dr. Francis Shen, an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota who specializes in what’s called neurolaw, thinks that neuroscience will need to work in tandem with other developing sciences, such as genetics and psychology, in order to make the most valuable contributions to law and other fields.
Shen notes that neuroscience presently doesn’t show a lot of new ways to successfully alter the brain, and it is currently best thought of as a tool to aid in behavioral interventions, not only for juveniles but in other areas of law as well, such as poverty.
Shen used the example of poverty law to describe how neuroscience can make contributions to data we already have from other disciplines about the effects poverty has on people.
“We are starting to open the black box,” Shen said in an interview with The Crime Report. “We don’t need neuroscience to tell us that poverty’s bad, but neuroscience will let us understand the mechanisms allow for earlier and more targeted interventions and reframe discussion for policies.”
As mentioned above, neuroscience offers opportunities to extrapolate brain data and make claims about human behavior that aren’t justified.
However, Shen and Kiehl have both pointed out that neuroscience, as well as other human sciences, usually make predictions based on a spectrum.
Neuroscience deals in probabilities, and tries to predict the likelihood someone will behave a certain way.
Someone who is diagnosed as highly psychopathic may never actually commit a violent crime, although the probability they will is higher compared to the average person.
While one should always be wary of both the past mistakes that have been made in the name of brain science, and the obstacles that lie ahead, the work mentioned by Kiehl and others is trying to up-end the determinism that many fear results from a neuroscientific perspective of behavior.
Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.
When youths are preconditioned to violence and crime, disregard for the law becomes automatic. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) targets this “criminal thinking” to reduce crime and recidivism— and give juveniles the opportunity of a productive future.
Looking back on childhood, a scene of handcuffs and reporting to probation officers does not usually come to mind. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many juveniles in the United States.
The report also notes that “two out of every three confined youths are held in the most restrictive facilities,” with almost one in ten confined juveniles incarcerated in adult facilities.
Though there is no national average recidivism rate for juveniles, reports from individual states remain stubbornly high, with many re-arrest rates at more than 50percent over a one- to three-year period, according to a paper prepared by The Council of State Governments Justice Center.
So, the question becomes, even with specialized courts and detention facilities responding to juvenile offending, why are so many children caught in the cycle of crime?
The answer to this behavior lies, in part, within the biology of the adolescent brain.
Neurobiology points to key differences between the brain composition of a juvenile compared to an adult. A study from the National Research Council (NRC) notes that juveniles’ lack of mature self-discipline in emotional situations, have increased susceptibility to peer pressure and instant-gratification incentives, and use less judgement based on future goals, fostering poor decisions that negatively impact themselves and others.
Depending heavily on the already-matured brain structure of the amygdala, the region responsible for emotional and impulse responses, juveniles rely less on logic and more on reaction to guide their behavior.
The Adolescent Brain
Despite adolescents’ predisposition to unpredictability and explosiveness, having a developing brain allows for the shaping of thought and actions, maximizing the effectiveness of treatment and diversion programs for those connected with the justice system—in effect, letting kids be kids and not kids behind bars.
A major player in treatment that utilizes this ability to mold and reform thoughts and behaviors is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT works under the premise that the way we think about a circumstance explicitly shapes our decisions and behavior; adverse thoughts lead to adverse behavior, while a positive mentality leads to positive behavior.
For example, enduring negative thoughts before giving a presentation such as “I know I’m going to mess up,” causes anxiety and fear which then dictates our behavior, making it more likely that these fears will come true. On the other hand, experiencing helpful thoughts such as “I am confident in my work and abilities,” will lead to a positive presentation outcome.
Though traditionally used in psychology to treat various disorders, the goal of CBT in the context of the justice system is to present a counterbalance to these automatic negative thoughts by helping participants understand the thinking processes and choices that precede criminal behavior.
For those youth who have a family member in jail or just grow up around maladaptive behavior, such as violence, abuse, and disrespect to authority, these actions are engrained into their minds as normal and automatic, simply “part of life.”
Many of these hardened criminals pass down the cycle of negative thought (wanting to be the most feared inmate in the state or swearing to never snitch on a fellow criminal, for example) to younger followers or family members.
Although this creates challenges in reforming these individuals solely through traditional punishment, CBT provides an escape from the “criminal mentality,” targeting offenders’ thinking through impulse management, critical and moral reasoning, means-ends problem solving, and social skill improvement, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Dr. Jack Bush, an Oregon-based cognitive therapist, has taken these foundational treatments and created his own version of cognitive behavioral therapy, called cognitive self-change.
Highlighting the need for reform, Dr. Bush argues in a recent article posted on the National Public Radio website, that “incarceration is a basic tool of criminal justice, but when the sole purpose is punishment and confinement, offenders respond, in the privacy of their own minds, with resentment and defiance.
“The thinking that led them to offend is not extinguished by punishment; it is reinforced.”
Dr. Bush focuses on minimizing the chance of recidivism by reforming dysfunctional thinking through four central steps:
Becoming more aware of thoughts and feelings;
recognizing how these thoughts and feelings are directly connected to harmful or unlawful behavior;
Brainstorming new ways of thinking that allow offenders to still feel good about themselves but which do not led to acts of crime; and finally
Applying this thinking to real-life situations.
Cognitive Self-Change (CSC), another way to describe the approach, stresses the skills offenders need in order to change themselves, rather than forcing an individual to change.
Participants in this program are given a pivotal message:
“When you learn how to steer your thinking away from crime and violence…you have a real choice to make. If you don’t learn these skills your important decisions will have already been made. Your decisions will be made in advance by the attitudes and habits of thinking you perform in your mind automatically, ‘without thinking.’”
Asked to assess CSC’s significance, Dr. Bush quoted one participant as saying, “I realized that the story of my past doesn’t need to be the story of my future.”
Dr. Bush commented: “I think that captures the heart of what CSC offers. It doesn’t cure a disease. It opens possibilities for new forms of life.”
He added that the approach can “change criminal justice attitudes.”
“CSC demands an attitude supportive of change by the criminal justice system,” he said. “This is contrary to punitive and condemnatory and exclusionary attitudes.”
The introspective treatment program of CBT has been found to be 79.2 percent in reducing crime among juveniles through a meta-analysis of 50 cognitive behavioral therapy programs conducted by the National Institute of Justice.
Additionally, CBT led to a 44 percent reduction in recidivism in a study of disadvantaged male youth (grades 7-10) from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods, by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Encouraged by these successful statistics, more and more programs utilizing CBT have been implemented in prisons and jails across the country.
With a focus on reducing gun violence, SAVE provides inmates with therapy curriculum including conflict resolution and anger management, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.
Of the program participants, a study found that only 17 percent were readmitted to the jail within a year and a half, in contrast to the 75 percent readmission for those inmates who did not go through the program.
Not limited to inside correctional facilities, cognitive behavioral therapy also has an important role in schools, with the goal of providing youths with cognitive skills needed to keep them out of contact with the justice system in the first place.
Education has a close relationship with crime. If a juvenile is incarcerated, he or she is 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 22 percentage points more likely to be incarcerated when they are an adult.
Without a high school degree, juveniles are susceptible not only to engaging in crime, but also face increased chances of unemployment and poverty, which are also major contributors to the factors behind committing a crime.
Striving to avoid these outcomes, The Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization seeking to reform the justice system, has implemented a “restorative justice” program in five high schools in Brooklyn, NY.
“What restorative justice allows us to do is to look beyond the behavior and look at some of the root causes and see how we can prevent this from turning into something much bigger,” program coordinator, Mischael Cetout, said during a recent PBS News Hour special.
According to the Center for Court Innovation, its restorative justice approach works to “promote individual responsibility and participation, repair harm, and build relationships.”
Student participants develop empathy and communication skills through “harm circles,” a space where conversation is mediated by a program coordinator to resolve conflicts between peers and give time for the students to reflect.
Employing CBT practices, this program drills down to find the root cause of an issue and allows students to understand why they acted in a certain way and what they can do better in a similar situation in the future.
By giving youths these skills to handle an explosive or enraging situation, this design essentially works as a diversion program; lowering the number of disciplinary incidents which subsequently allows students to redirect from a path of delinquency and harm to one of respect and success.
Policy Loopholes Add Complications
Though CBT programs have successfully been implemented in and out of the justice system, issues still remain for juveniles in receiving the benefits of this therapy due to policy loopholes.
Recognizing that culpability of a crime may lay more on the composition of a growing brain (as opposed to an individual being purposefully defiant), the federal courts put in place specialized juvenile programs and standards, including the most recent authorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in 2002.
Setting forth safety and treatment standards for youth, the act establishes four core requirements: deinstitutionalization of status offenders, adult jail and lock-up removal, “sight and sound” separation of juveniles from adults, and disproportionate minority contact.
However, JJDPA was amended to “create an exception to the DSO [deinstitutionalization of status offenders] core requirement that allows judges to securely confine youth adjudicated for a status offense if the child violated a “valid” order of the court,” according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
This exception converts a minor status offense such as skipping school or running away from home, into a criminal act. It does so by providing judges with a loophole; although truancy is not a detainable offense, youth can be punished for violating a court order to attend school every day.
The Vera Institute reports that “as of 2011 [the last year of available data], 27 states used the so-called VCO exception, and thousands of kids are still removed from their homes to be put in detention and out-of-home placements each year.”
Not only does this exception disrupt a child’s daily life, it can also put their safety at risk and limit their access to treatment.
The Campaign for Youth Justice estimates that 200,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year in the United States, while juveniles within the adult criminal system are between 34 percent and 77 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a crime.
The protection from adult offenders under the JJDPA do not apply to those youth who are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice, subjecting them to mandatory minimums, increased exposure to abuse, and use of solitary confinement to segregate.
When juveniles are exposed to hardened criminals, the destructive “criminal thinking” becomes more deep-seated, complicating reform and rehabilitation through cognitive behavioral therapy.
Additionally, due to the vulnerability of juveniles to abuse from older inmates, many officers tend to protect youths by confining them to a segregation unit. This limits the access to treatment and therapy for juveniles by isolating them, unable to ‘talk things out’ within a group of individuals.
Luckily, NRC researchers commenting on the legal effects of brain chemistry, note that “much adolescent involvement in illegal activity is an extension of the kind of risk-taking that is part of the developmental process of identity formation, and most adolescents mature out of these tendencies.”
So, by implementing CBT programs in and out of the justice system, juveniles armed with beneficial cognitive skills will be able to avoid or restrain their criminal behavior as they grow older.
Though CBT has been found to be successful for offenders as well as in reducing taxpayer money on incarceration, Dr. Bush notes that we should not “replace incarceration with treatment or let people out of prison early just because they have taken treatment.
“But,” he continued, “adding treatment to incarceration provides hope to offenders now, and benefits to society in the future.”
Laura Binczweski is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.
A hearing on state Senate Bill 1391, which would prevent youths under 16 from being sent to adult courts, is scheduled Thursday. Supporters say it will reduce recidivism rates and better rehabilitate and prepare youth for successful, productive reentry into society.
A violent riot broke out in the yard on Michael Mendoza’s very first day in a state prison — a stark wake-up call to his new reality.
At age 15, Mendoza had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
“I thought, ‘This is my life, this is what it’s going to be like,’” Mendoza said of that day some 20 years ago. “It’s going to be very violent. And I was going to have to become something I wasn’t to survive – a violent individual.”
For certain crimes in California, teens as young as 14 can be sentenced as adults, and sent to prison for life, like Mendoza was. California Senate Bill 1391, now moving through the state legislature, aims to stop that in light of new understandings of brain development.
“Cognitive science has proven that children and youth who commit crimes are very capable of change,” said State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D), the bill’s author. “Sending youth to an adult prison does not help our youth and does not make our communities any safer.”
The bill, which has been passed on the Senate floor, is due for an Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on August 16. If passed, SB 1391 could become another piece of aggressive juvenile justice reform under the watch of outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown.
As the law now stands, teens aged 14 and up who are charged with certain serious offenses can be sent to adult court for adjudication at the behest of a judge via what’s called a transfer hearing. Young teens charged with murder and some sexual offenses are automatically transferred to adult court.
If SB 1391 becomes law, all 14- and 15-year olds charged with a crime would be handled in the juvenile justice system. Under no circumstances would anyone younger than age 16 be tried in adult court, even for murder charges.
“The youngest teens in our system need to be held accountable for their actions, but they’re also require age appropriate services and programs to rehabilitate and grow into mature, healthy adults,” Lara said.
Why Raise The Age?
Before 1994, youth under the age of 16 were always handled by the juvenile justice system in California. But amid the nationwide push to get “tough on crime,” the state lowered the age that youth could be tried as adults from 16 to 14.
Advocates point out the racialized nature of the “super-predator” era” of criminal justice reform that ushered in this law, and indeed, youth of color are disproportionately impacted. In the past 10 years, 50 percent of Latino and 60 percent of black juvenile offenders were sent to adult prison, compared to just 10 percent of white offenders, Lara said during the public safety hearing.
Data Source: California Department of Justice
In 2016, 32 14- and 15-year olds were tried in adult court, a sharp drop from the approximately 70 cases per year that has been the average for the past five, according to data provided by Sen. Lara’s office.
Supporters of SB 1391 argue that keeping 14- and 15-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system will reduce recidivism rates and better rehabilitate and prepare youth for successful, productive reentry into society.
These benefits are credited, in part, to the availability — and mandatory nature — of services such as education and counseling. But the other side of the coin is that keeping youth in the juvenile system protects them from the behaviors and personalities in adult prison.
“These youth are very young, very moldable,” said Israel Villa, a policy coordinator with the nonprofit MILPA Collective (short for Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement).
“Do we want these kids in a level four prison with the most violent offenders where they can be molded, utilized, often abused? Or do we want them in a juvenile facility amongst their peers with access to all these things to rehabilitate them?”
Mendoza, who was convicted at age 15 for his involvement in a gang-related shooting, recognized that being younger made him a target for manipulation. He felt he had to go along with older men’s orders to survive inside.
But then, 16 years into his life sentence, new hope came when a new bill brought the possibility of release.
Senate Bill 260, or the Justice for Juveniles with Adult Prison Sentences Act, which took effect in 2014, requires the parole board to review the cases of people who were under 18 at the time of their crime — and to “take into consideration the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to that of adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the individual.”
Mendoza was approved for parole during his 17th year of incarceration.
“SB 260 sent me a message of hope from the community saying we understand you were at a very young age when you committed the crime and we believe that young people such as yourselves have the opportunity to mature and to grow,” Mendoza said.
Since being released, Mendoza has earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and is now a policy director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He believes that with SB 1391, youth offenders like himself can be rehabilitated without the hopeless years and added trauma he faced.
A Route to Rehabilitation or Coddling Criminals?
Opponents of the bill argue that the courts should have a right to determine the best system to adjudicate young offenders on a case-by-case basis.
“A lot of times, maybe adult prison is inappropriate, and the judges can make that call. But you’re essentially removing their ability to do that,”Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate for the California Police Chiefs’ Association said at the public safety hearing.
Other opponents of the bill included the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs; the California District Attorneys Association; the California State Sheriffs’ Association; and the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
In the same hearing, Sen. Jeff Stone (R) described several especially awful crimes committed by teens who would be affected by this law, and asked Lara if he really thought such individuals could be truly rehabilitated.
“We have to remember that most juvenile offenders have been victims themselves, and being able to understand the entire story is something we can do in the juvenile justice system,” Lara responded.
Moreover, data shows that up to 70 percent of incarcerated youth have a mental health disorder or learning disability, and many of them have a history of trauma and abuse.
“These youth deserve to get the help that they need,” Valerie Thompson, Santa Cruz County’s assistant chief of probation, said in support of the bill during a public safety hearing. “The division of juvenile justice provides evidence-based therapeutic services that support youth to success.”
Villa, who has spent time in both juvenile and adult detention facilities, said there’s a significant difference between the two systems. In the juvenile system, detained youth are required to keep up with their education and participate in other rehabilitative activities. Adult prisons, on the other hand, are so overcrowded that accessing any type of services to better oneself can be difficult.
Villa was on a waiting list for two years just to get into a GED class. “I gave up — it’s not uncommon,” he said.
Mendoza was incarcerated for nearly 10 years before he finally decided to focus on his education; he said starting classes marked the beginning of his rehabilitation. In addition to the lack of access to programs, adult prisons, he said, aren’t conducive to pursuing self-improvement. Inside, survival is the main focus.
“Nobody can really concentrate on getting education when they are stressed out about their living situation,” Mendoza said.
A Turning Tide
While once a pipe dream for advocates, this bill seems to fit within a wider shift in paradigm on rehabilitating young people who run afoul of the law.
In addition to the landmark SB 260, several laws and court decisions have added to the growing consensus that young people who commit crimes have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adult offenders.
“[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.”
In 2016, California voters passed Prop 57, which repealed a 2000 law that allowed prosecutors — rather than a judge — to determine which juvenile cases should be tried in adult court.
For Mendoza, regardless of how a teen’s case winds up in adult court, the consequences they can face there are still beyond their comprehension.
“For me at the age of 15, it was beyond my understanding. I didn’t really understand it until years later,” once he was already in prison and watching others serve life sentences, Mendoza said.
Villa stresses the reality that most youth being sentenced — whether as juveniles or as adults — will eventually return to their community. Where they serve their time will inevitably have an indelible effect on the people they become.
“If we lock up and throw away these kids at such a young age into the system, that doesn’t bring just to our community or even to the victims because they become trapped in a system of violence and doesn’t prepare them to come home,” Mendoza said.
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More than 300 arrestees over 20 years were between 10 and 12 years old. Experts cautioned that labeling juveniles as gang members can create a stigma that causes lifelong problems yet serves little purpose for police.
Nearly 33,000 juveniles arrested over the last two decades have been labeled by Chicago police as gang members, the Chicago Tribune reports. The records, released as a result of an open records fight by the Tribune, provide the first look at gang data kept by the police department for those 17 or younger, most of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics from historically violent neighborhoods. At the time of their arrest, 13 of the juveniles were just 10 years old. About 60 were 11. More than 300 were 12. Experts cautioned that labeling juveniles as gang members can create a stigma that causes lifelong problems yet serves little purpose for police.
The police department defends its gang databases, saying they remain an important tool in fighting what drives much of Chicago’s violence. The department has promised reforms in how people end up listed as gang members and in how they can remove their names. The practice of listing gang members has led to an ongoing audit by the city’s Office of Inspector General, a federal lawsuit against the city and a proposed city ordinance to limit its impact. Critics and experts say that the gang labels are often too easily attached, racially skewed and out of date, yet the harm can be lasting when the Police Department shares flawed gang intelligence with other law enforcement agencies such as immigration officials. It can also be a damaging label during criminal investigations or at sentencings. Stephanie Kollmann of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law said, “It is appalling to contemplate the ways in which the safety of underage youth may be jeopardized due to police records … created without public accountability or oversight.”
The Texas Criminal Justice coalition calls for reforms to community supervision that are “developmentally appropriate” to young people who age out of the juvenile justice system but are still too immature to understand the consequences of their behavior.
Traditional approaches to probation are failing young adults, making them more likely to get caught up in lifetime criminal behavior, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
A study by the coalition, an advocacy nonprofit for justice issues in Texas, found that just 18 percent of young Texans between the ages of 17-21 were able to successfully complete probation, and nearly 7,000 who had their probation revoked were sent to prison or jail during 2017.
The figures are “heartbreaking when one considers the missed opportunities to alter the course for a generation of young adults who might otherwise have moved beyond criminal justice system involvement and led productive lives,” said the report.
Standard probation practices that work for older adults don’t work with younger adults, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) said.
“Those practices deprive younger defendants of the rehabilitative benefit of probation and set them up for failure,” said Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition and a co-author of the report.
The report, entitled “Young Adults and Community Supervision,” called for a “developmentally appropriate approach” that would recognize the special challenges faced by young adults, who are still not yet mature enough to recognize the consequences of their acts and are more susceptible to peer influences.
“Young men and women involved in the criminal justice system often face higher environmental exposure to criminal behavior than older adults, while simultaneously lacking the ability to process long-term consequences,” said the authors.
Young adults aged 18-25 make up less than 10 percent of the total U.S. population, but represent approximately 29 percent of all arrests, 26 percent of people on probation, and 21 percent of all people admitted into adult prison, the study said.
The report’s other co-authors were Joshua Cuddy, policy associate with the TCJC; and Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney with the coalition.
The authors went on to note that young people of color are disproportionately represented in these figures. Nationally, for every white man sentenced to prison in 2012, there were six African American men and three Hispanic/Latino men imprisoned. Similarly, for every white man aged 18 to 19 sent to prison, nine African American men and three Hispanic/Latino men of the same age were imprisoned.
Addressing these imbalances requires strategies that allow more young adults to be given alternatives through a “community supervision system that is both cost-effective and able to reduce intersection with the criminal justice system,” the report said.
The study added that the cost of the broken probation system in Texas should be an added spur to reform. Sending young people with probation revocations has cost the state over $130 million, while if they had remained on standard probation like their younger peers, the cost would be just 44.5 million.
The report’s recommendations to Texas policymakers include:
Developing community-based collaborations and programming that deter young adults from prison;
Reducing high supervision fees, including by allowing participation in rehabilitative programming to satisfy financial obligations;
Providing more technical assistance for probation departments to implement best practices;
Assigning shorter probation terms for low-risk defendants and emphasizing early termination for higher-risk defendants who successfully complete rehabilitative programming; and
Prioritzing vocational and life skills training.
The report is the first in a planned series of studies for the TCJC’s “One Size FAILS All” campaign, aimed at proving better outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized populations who become entangled in Texas’ criminal justice system.
Gov. Rick Scott called her “a national leader in reform of a comprehensive juvenile justice system.” She also presided during some of her agency’s worst tragedies, including the questionable deaths of three youths in state custody.
Christina Daly, the Florida agency head hailed by Gov. Rick Scott as “a national leader in reform of a comprehensive juvenile justice system,” is stepping down, the Miami Herald reports. Daly oversaw the state Department of Juvenile Justice as it dramatically expanded its effort to divert non-violent youth away from brick-and-mortar facilities and into treatment and community services. She has been praised for improving the agency’s ability to measure performance and bring evidence-based practices into wider use. Daly also oversaw a tumultuous period in which youth workers were accused of turning detainees into goons who were rewarded with vending machine honey buns and other treats.
Scott said Daly is leaving Aug. 31. He said she has “done a fantastic job … and has driven positive change through effective leadership to build a system of care for the thousands of youth they serve.” Daly said, “Florida has risen as a state leader in juvenile justice reform, reform that has been strategic and driven by data and research.” Daly’s administration also saw some of her agency’s worst tragedies, including the questionable deaths of three youths in state custody. One of the teens who died was Elord Revolte, a 17-year-old foster child who was savagely beaten by more than a dozen other detainees shortly after he had gotten into an argument with an officer at the Miami lockup.