Thursday, February 28, 2013

Locking Up Kids Doesn't Work

The same people whose mantra is 'cut the budget' also tend to have a simplistic model about crime and punishment.  There's an assumption that people who behave badly are best handled by punishment.  Jails and prisons are convenient ways to get the criminal element off the streets, and the more you do that, the less crime you'll have.

But a new study just out Wednesday, has monitored the data and says that's not really the case.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored research has found that the rate of juvenile incarceration in the US has gone down.  AND so has the rate of crime by this population.

But first, a short quiz.  Look at the chart below.  On the left is a list of countries.  On the right is a list of numbers.  I want you to try to match the countries with their incarceration rate.  You can copy and print the chart or just right down the countries and the numbers you think match each country. 

Match the Country and Rate of Youth Incarceration
Country  Your Guess Incarcerated Youth/
100,000 Youth
1. Australia
a.  51.3
2.  England/Wales
b.  11.3
3. Finland
c.  23.1
4. France
d.  33.0
5. Germany
e.  0.1
6.  Italy
f.  24.9
7.  Japan
g.  18.6
8.  Netherlands
h.  3.6
9.  New Zealand
i.  336
10. Scotland
j.  69.0
11.  South Africa
k.  46.8
12.  Sweden
l.  68.0
13. USA
m.  4.1
HTML Tables  - See chart at bottom for the answers

What’s Wrong With America’s Juvenile Corrections Facilities?
  • Dangerous    
  • Ineffective    
  • Unnecessary    
  • Obsolete    
  • Wasteful    
  • Inadequate    
Basically, the studies says that contrary to the expectations of many, when detention levels went down, so did crime.  
Kids that get into serious trouble tend to have serious problems.  The answer isn't prisons, it's finding ways to help the kids deal with the issues they're facing. 
Their recommendations?
Priority 1:  Limit Eligibility for Correctional Placements
Priority 2:  Invest in Promising Non-Residential Alternatives
Priority 3:  Change the Financial Incentives
Priority 4:  Adopt Best Practice Reforms for Managing Youth Offenders
Priority 5:  Replace Large Institutions with Small, Treatment-Oriented Facilities for the Dangerous Few
Priority 6:  Use Data to Hold Systems Accountable

Life isn't simple.  Doing the right thing, not the ideological thing, actually saves far more money in the long run than it costs.  Good treatment for the kids in the beginning, means far lower costs to deal with this population later on.  

Better yet, lots of programs for young kids and their parents so they never need to face juvenile detention facilities in the first place.  But, instead, we're facing the possibility of huge across-the-board federal cuts that will create huge costs in the future.  

To see the whole study, click here.  It fills in the details.

Oh, yeah.  The answers to the short quiz:

Click on Image to Enlarge and Sharpen


  1. Stricter crime bills and ever increasing rates of incarceration are the result of privatizing the prison industry. It started decades ago under the cover of 'getting tough on crime', and it's escalating today through 'model legislation' promoted by wingnut legislators who subscribe to the corporate sponsored legislation mills such as ALEC.

    Humans are mere numbers in the profit game. Age isn't a consideration for those profiting from the game, children are just another set of numbers to be exploited.

  2. Cynical, Anon, but surely privatization is a major contributor to the trend. But there are other factors too because the study says the incarceration rates for kids is down, without the expected uptick in crime. And the NY Times today had a story saying that the percent of black prisoners - especially women - is down sharply.

  3. Wait, you're saying the incarceration rate for juveniles is down and there should be an expected uptick in crime? I'm not seeing the causal relationship you imply.

    What we know is that much of the juvenile population that was heretofore casually incarcerated weren't always incarcerated as a result of actually committing any 'crimes'. Often a percentage of those juveniles are placed in detention facilities because they were just being parked there since better options were seldom made available.

    The study states that a number of facilities which previously were used to detain juveniles have been closed as a result of class action lawsuits and federal investigations into their operational deficiencies. Some more were closed because of a need to cut budgets and we all know that cutting services is often first up on the chopping block. The study authors aren't thinking there's been any policy shift to the better that accounts for the decline.

    The study is not hopeful that the incarceration rate decline is underpinned by any improved policy outlook, they are in fact worried about the pendulum swinging back the other way and a resultant increase in incarceration rates may be just around the corner.

    It's long been argued that incarceration isn't the a panacea or the best way to deal with criminals young or old, it is though, sold as the cheapest alternative, and look on socially as the best method to remove the problem from having to be dealt with or observed. Out of sight, out of mind. Lock em away, throw away the key. (no thought to what it might actually cost to maintain all the prisons and prisoners, that's thought not to be of any concern, it, (the problem) is gone from view, and so is any further thought or responsibility.

    One bright spot on the horizon is the changing demographics in this country, we're slowly evolving into becoming a nation of more responsible and more empathetic peoples. I look forward to the day.

  4. They say in the study that those who have advocated for harsher punishment have said getting the criminals off the street would lower crime. But there finding is that even when the incarceration rate goes down, crime did too. So one of the reasons to incarcerate more is shown to be false, at least in this study.

    So the study offers two things for tough on crime conservatives:
    1. decrease in crime rate
    2. ability to cut the budget

    But, yes, they do say the cuts have not been based on research, but more on the costs and that people could move back to higher incarceration rates. So all the more reason to get studies like this out for people to see.

  5. Sadly, there's little chance the 'get tough on crime folks' would exercise the objective judgement necessary to see that their preconceptions are false.


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