Treat Juvenile Crime as a Mental and Social Disease

Published by — Change the way we’re having this conversation.  Focus on the crime as a symptom.


Crime among juveniles is a symptom of a problem.  Our system doesn’t question the root cause of the issue, but asks instead:  Is the kid guilty or innocent?  If guilty, what’s the punishment?

As a result, this scenario takes place all over the nation, daily:  Bust a kid and send him to prison, which makes him worse.  In time, send him back to the community that didn’t know what to do with him in the first place.  Repeat.  And according to statistics, keep repeating.

Within 5 years, 77% of released prisoners in U.S. are re-arrested.

Recidivism rates specific to juveniles are extremely hard to come by.  Some states don’t track the kids as they age and cross into the adult system.  Recidivism itself lacks a standard definition.  A large National Institute of Justice study of 30 states, though, provided the stat above.

So let’s go back to our scenario and unpack it for a closer look.  A kid 17 or younger commits a crime.  He — they’re usually “he” — vandalizes, steals, fights.  He’s caught, adjudicated and sent to a Corrections facility.  In my state, Rhode Island, the facility is called the Training School, which sounds like a dog obedience academy.

The offender spends a few days or months there, during which the long-range prospects for his mental state do no improve.  If his sentence is long enough, he learns all sorts of cool new tricks to add to his bad-kid repertoire.  Even if he only serves a few days, he still gets a reputation burnished with street cred.  Prison makes him more of a man.  Other students and younger siblings might look up to him.

In fact, a bit of juvenile detention is such a badge of honor that offenders I’ve seen wear shorts to school in zero-degree weather to show off their new fashion accessory:  an electronic ankle bracelet.  If parents and school staff thought he was a pain before his vacay in the can, now he’s untouchable.  The electronic tracker only requires him to be compliant about being in school, but he’s free to strut the hallways during class as he pleases.  School staff are torn between coaxing him into cooperation or just handing him back to the police and courts.  Odds are that he’s low-income and black or Hispanic, so Daddy’s not there to lawyer up and ship him off to boarding school to hide the shame.

Nope: he’s coming back to his family and community. But while the offender was gone, the community got nothing but a break from him and his behavior.  While some states and counties are a bit better than others, hardly anyone does much to prepare families and communities to receive back troubled kids.  No agency or public service deals with the conditions in which the trouble began, festered and grew. Almost inevitably, the cycle repeats.

The pipeline isn’t the problem; the prison is.

Prisons are easy repositories for the unwanted.  If crimes are symptomatic of mental and social illness, our response essentially damns the kid to a disease he’s left to cure on his own.  Kids who are violent might well be deranged, which is to say mentally ill, needing an intense hospital setting.  Perhaps the kid got caught up in a Fight Club street culture that is the entrance requirement to gang membership or just survival.  Street fighting is a social ill, and punishing individual kids isn’t going to heal that situation.  If anything, it makes kids meaner.

So removing the prison option and replacing it with a locked mental health facility would inevitably change the nature of the pipeline.  No one swaggers home from the hospital, locked or not.  If a kid’s impossible behavior results not in jail time but therapy, social work, and digging into the deeper issues of home and community, the pipeline itself would also take on a therapeutic rather than punitive quality.  If the pipeline focused on healing mental and social illness, it would likely keep more kids out of hospitals and prisons.  If nothing else, it would be cheaper.

The RI Training School costs $186,380 per kid, per year.

RI is above the national average, which is $148,767, but less than half than New York’s annual cost of $352,663.  Surely we could spend the money more effectively, especially by putting a good portion of it into communities that desperately need help reducing their own crime.  Parents need help long before the kid starts skipping school regularly.  Families desperately need help with mental health and addiction services, with education and job training, with residential stability.  So put that money where it can avoid or at least mitigate misery for the kid, family and community.

No kid was born with a “bad” gene.  They live in conditions that grow social weeds.  Poor kids grow up on mean streets.  Rich bad kids are nurtured in entitlement and a sense that the rules don’t apply to them.  Rich or poor, change the conditions.  Change the way we’re having this conversation.  Focus on the crime as a symptom.  Otherwise, we are living the definition of insanity.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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