Posts Tagged juvenile prisons

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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Juvenile Prison Stats Reveal American Attitudes Towards Kids

Published by — America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.

There is no alternative universe where bad kids go and get better.  Period.  Such a place does not exist.

Mind you, it’s insane to tolerate classroom or school disruptions, never mind criminal activity among children and youth.  A kid wasting a class’s time by flipping over a desk and swearing at a public-school teacher is effectively stealing taxpayers’ money.  A thief is a thief, no matter how old.  Whether kids behave disruptively or criminally, we need to act quickly or they’ll get the idea that what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.

But why is the most frequent solution kicking kids out?  Alternatives can be found.  But overwhelmingly, American schools and its judicial system remove little rotters from their classrooms, or from the families and communities that raised them, and warehouse them in behavior-disordered classrooms, boot camps, alternative schools or juvenile prisons.  There, they get worse.  Researchers call it “congregate contagion,” meaning they catch bad ideas from other bad kids, like catching measles.  Then they return to the families and communities that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place, having gotten zero help with receiving them back successfully.  How’s that going to make the kid better?

Very smart people, whom I respect, seem to wear blinders to ignore what happens after the kick-out.  Today I’ll pick on one such smart person, Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, precisely because otherwise I admire him tons.  He pleads passionately for simplifying the rules, laws, and regulations that muck up government’s ability to get anything done.  His book The Death of Common Sense permanently transformed how I thought about rules and regs.  His recent work, The Rule of Nobody, argues that legalistic micro-managements absolve actual humans from making judgments and taking accountability for them.  I’m with him.

But is it common sense to include in Howard’s lists of regulatory idiocies rules that limit kids being summarily removed from class?  For him it’s a no-brainer; kick ‘em out.  But where and how will bad kids ever learn community-appropriate rules if not in a healthy community?  For example, wouldn’t it be cheaper and far more effective than prisons or other warehouses to pair a non-violent kid with a trained person, working one on one to reintegrate him or her into the home, school and community in healthy ways?

If presented with the evidence, I bet even Howard would agree prisons offer no hope of making bad kids better.  And yet they are an over-flowing landfills of unwanted children.

Consider the Cross-national Comparison of Youth Justice.

America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.  A fascinating study by researcher Neal Hazel looks at incarcerated youth and children, under 18, across juvenile-justice systems in 20-plus nations.  The differences are stunning.  (You’ll find his chart comparing countries on page 59.)

The lowest juvenile rates are:

Japan           0.1 (youth per 100,00 under 18)

Finland         3.6

Sweden        4.1

As a British researcher, Hazel bolds the U.K. data, horrified to find that the highest rates include:

England and Wales   46.8

South Africa               69.0

But the showstopper is U.S. rate at:  336.0.  It’s the only rate in triple digits.  Nearly 5 times that of the next highest, South Africa.  That’s an enormous garbage heap of kids.  If Americans aren’t genetically prone to produce bad kids, what is the data saying?

Yes, it’s a no-brainer to protect the kids who are cooperating from the disruptive ones.  But our solution creates a different problem.  Howard is both a famous author and a lawyer.  So I’m assuming that whether or not he has kids of his own, he runs with the private-school set.  When kids do the naughty in private schools, they’re out.  End of discussion.  They probably go to public schools.  Some kids, mainly poor and minority, go to urban schools of last resort, the very schools that have been mandated by the President to reduce suspensions and expulsions.  When you’re at the cushy end of segregation, removing disruptive kids is simple and just common sense.  As long as you don’t think about where they end up.

Every night we sit in front of the TV and watch cops shows with plots that follow some version of trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.  Right and wrong are so obvious.  Wrong is wrong.  No excuses.  No mercy.  Bad guys need to be punished and put away.  Anything else is Officer Krupke liberal excuse-making.

Loving and caring for all kids is not simple and often requires more than common sense.  American attitudes towards troubled young people are writ large in our willingness to throw them away.  We do so our own peril.

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, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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