by Jamie J. Fader
Earlier this month, the nation was shocked to learn that two juvenile judges in Pennsylvania had been found guilty of taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from privately-run detention facilities in exchange for sending adolescent “customers” their way. Hundreds of young people who went before these judges were remanded to facilities for minor offenses that would not typically result in incarceration as punishment (particularly where Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act requires that judges use the “least restrictive” setting to reform and treat delinquent youth).
Although I shared in the outrage over the story, I was hardly surprised that it happened. The juvenile justice system is shrouded in secrecy, purportedly to protect the confidentiality of its young charges. This is only becoming truer as juvenile corrections – like its adult counterpart – undergoes increased privatization. However, this hidden nature of juvenile justice limits due process for young people and prevents the public from being aware of what happens inside juvenile correctional facilities. Worse, it prevents us from demanding accountability from these institutions, particularly where solid research and evaluation is available to serve as a guide.
One of the more disheartening aspects of many (if not most) juvenile treatment facilities is the disconnect between the causes of crime and attempts to rehabilitate young offenders. Delinquency is viewed as the failure of the individual to adapt to his/her surroundings, despite the volumes of research connecting juvenile crime to larger forces such as lack of opportunity, deteriorating neighborhoods, and failing schools. Where any sort of programmatic theory exists inside juvenile treatment, it is often outdated and/or has received no empirical support.
The widespread use of “criminal thinking errors” – which posits that offenders have unique thinking patterns that are responsible for their lawbreaking – is one example. Often, the “therapeutic” component is really punitive (as in the case of boot camps), based on the theory that harsh discipline will bring about personal reform. Several high-profile cases of deaths and injuries at such programs should be evidence enough to cause concern.
Few of these programs have undergone evaluation, relying instead on (often reactive) monitoring by state and local funding agencies. These efforts tend to emphasize outputs and compliance with minimum standards for service provision (e.g., staff-to-client ratios), instead of outcomes (e.g., recidivism). Accountability, then, rarely means that facilities must demonstrate that they actually reduce young people’s risk of re-offending after release. In Philadelphia, where a ground-breaking system of outcomes-tracking existed for ten years, the failure rate varied widely across juvenile facilities, but averaged 40 percent.
Despite great advances in scholarly knowledge of “what works” to prevent and control delinquency, juvenile corrections facilities have clung stubbornly to their core features for more than a century (see Eric Schneider’s In the Web of Class for an excellent history). In addition to their insistence on individualistic causes of and treatments for delinquency, most are located in rural settings far from the city, a nod to Progressives’ hopes that the countryside had curative properties that could overcome years of exposure to urban filth and vice.
Today, this practice means that parents are rarely able to visit their children while they are incarcerated and that young parents in the juvenile system are less able to maintain relationships with their own children. Moreover, rural facilities face steep challenges in recruiting staff members of color, so services are offered to a disproportionately minority population using a nearly-exclusively white staff.
If juvenile justice policy was more widely informed by research, there might be more discussion of several important studies that find juvenile incarceration actually harms young people’s life chances and makes them more likely to offend in the future. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, has found that youth incarceration disrupts the normal, healthy development of adolescents. He concludes that being confined for months or years results in “arrested development,” or the failure to achieve the developmental tasks expected for those of their age. Similarly, Sampson and Laub’s longitudinal study of Boston delinquents found that those who spent time in reform school were more likely to offend as adults because incarceration prevented them from establishing stable work histories.
My own research highlights the difficulties that young people face as they return home from these facilities. Their transition back into their families, schools, and communities is made even more challenging by a lack of coordination between service providers and insufficient funding for “best practices” for reintegrating formerly-incarcerated youth.
If traditional, state-run facilities haven’t been able to overcome more than a century of failure to live up to the promise of reforming wayward children, we should be skeptical that the prison industrial complex will do much better, given its primary role to turn a profit and please investors. This is certainly an empirical question (one I’d love to be in a position to answer some day), but one that the recent events in Pennsylvania make particularly germane. This may indeed be an important opportunity to reconsider our use of juvenile corrections facilities, including the number of young people we incarcerate, the provision of quality services while they are confined, and the potential for unintended harmful consequences.
Jamie J. Fader is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She also spent six years working on ProDES (Program Development and Evaluation System), a system that tracked outcomes for adjudicated youth mandated to delinquency intervention programs. ProDES was a finalist in the 1999 Innovations in American Government competition, co-sponsored by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Ford Foundation.