Making A Comeback For Kids

The times, they are a-changin' and it means critical improvements for our kids and communities. In state legislatures across the country, an undercurrent of reform driven by youth advocates and policymakers of both parties has inspired a sea change within juvenile justice systems nationwide. This is dramatically reversing a troubling trend in youth incarceration, while also benefiting kids, saving taxpayer money and keeping communities safe.

For much of the mid-twentieth century, our approach to juvenile justice was largely rooted in a belief that the behavior of youth who committed offenses could be changed through rehabilitation. Following a wave of highly publicized violent youth crimes in the 1980s, our nation took a shift toward increased incarceration, creating laws that defined more behavior as criminal and delivered stiffer penalties. Soon these policies made way for the rapid expansion in the construction of youth correctional facilities and continued a perceived "tough on crime" leadership that would remain for more than two decades.

After years of a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice that relied heavily on the incarceration and imprisonment of youth, the number of juveniles confined in state and county facilities nationwide reached an alarming high in 2000, totaling more than 100,000 kids. Many of these youth were placed in facilities that exposed them to violence, disconnected them from their families and communities, and offered few pathways for rehabilitation that would help prevent the likelihood they would come in contact with the law again and strengthen the skills needed to become contributing members of society.

Since then, a quiet revolution to reverse this trend has brought together advocates and policymakers across a broad spectrum of ideologies in so-called "red" and "blue" states, including, organizations like the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

Although we have different constituencies and agendas - NJJN represents state-based advocates who work toward a more equitable and fair justice system, while TPPF supports the application of conservative principles such as limited government to criminal justice -we have both seen first-hand the effects of our country's broken juvenile system and the growing positive impact of policies that have sought to address these challenges.

To illustrate the impact of policies that have shifted our reliance on incarceration and returned our focus to alternative ways to hold young people accountable without confining them in detention, we've collaborated on a new report, The Comeback States, that examines national and state incarceration trends since the record-setting 63 percent increase in youth detention from 1985 to 2000.

And the progress has been stunning. Since 2000, when the number of kids incarcerated was at a record high, the number of detained or incarcerated youth has decreased by nearly 40 percent nationwide, fully erasing the increase from the previous 15 years.

Since the 1980s, a greater understanding of the development of the teenage brain and adolescent development, decline in youth arrests, effectiveness of evidence-based alternatives, and the growing cost of operating secure facilities, has given way to a new approach to ensuring the best outcomes for our kids and our communities.

The Comeback States report looks at the key policies and practices responsible for this pivotal turnaround, and highlights nine "comeback states" that are leading the nation on this critical juvenile justice effort, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

Each of these states has adopted fiscally sound, evidence-based solutions that have contributed to this remarkable change, including increasing the availability of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, requiring intake procedures that reduce the use of secure detention facilities, closing or downsizing youth confinement facilities, reducing schools' overreliance on the justice system to address discipline issues, disallowing incarceration for minor offenses, and restructuring juvenile justice responsibilities and finances among the state and counties. In addition to the significant decline in youth incarceration, each of these states also experienced a decline in youth crime over the same period.

There is no denying this is a remarkable time in the history of juvenile justice policy and there is reason to celebrate. But there is still more work to be done in these nine states and in every jurisdiction to address other issues, including the need to better resource our communities so that youth have adequate opportunities and support, the high taxpayer cost of youth incarceration - which exceeds more than $100,000 per child in some states - and the number of youth who are confined for non-serious offenses like breaking school rules.

Too often history has a way of repeating itself. Let us not allow the future of our young people and our communities to receive the same cheap fate. Our collaboration is only the beginning of the common ground that can be achieved when each of us - parents, law enforcement, advocates and legislators - work together to ensure that we are a nation that lives up to its principle of justice for all.