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Stacy M. Brown
Published: 09 November 2023

In its report, “System Reforms to Reduce Youth Incarceration: Why We Must Explore Every Option Before Removing Any Young Person from Home,” the Sentencing Project challenges the prevalent practice of youth incarceration. The study highlights the inefficacy of youth incarceration and underscores the urgent need for state and local youth justice systems to prioritize alternative-to-incarceration programs.

Research shows that it is rarely necessary or effective to incarcerate adolescent offenders, the authors concluded. Instead, incarceration often heightens the likelihood of repeat offenses, impedes educational and employment prospects, and exposes youth to harmful environments. Unsurprisingly, these negative impacts disproportionately affect youth of color, particularly African Americans.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, more than eighty percent of all arrests involve low-level, nonviolent offenses associated with poverty. Further disconcerting, although Black males comprise just 13% of the total population, they represent an astounding 35% of those incarcerated. Additionally, compared to their white counterparts, Black youth are over four times more likely to be detained or committed to juvenile facilities.

Alternative measures

The Sentencing Project said it wants youth justice leaders and legislators to recognize and fix the current failed strategy, and deal with the racial inequalities. The organization supports using alternatives to incarceration in most cases, except when there is a clear danger to public safety. The Sentencing Project’s report delineates a comprehensive agenda of state and local reforms, drawing from successful implementations nationwide. The authors note proposed changes that include not sending children to state-run youth prisons for certain crimes, providing incentives to local courts to avoid sending kids to state custody, and using the funds saved from releasing kids for other programs.

Officials at the Sentencing Project suggest making changes at the local level. They recommend reducing the number of individuals who are sent to prison early in the legal process. It also suggests changing the way probation is done so that it helps people succeed in the long term. Finally, the report recommends not putting young people in jail for breaking probation rules.

Uniting the justice system and the community

To effectively reduce youth incarceration, the report authors emphasized the need for collaboration between justice systems, families, and community partners. The authors insists that staff members who are highly motivated and trained must implement alternative-to-incarceration programs per core principles. They argue that efforts should be made to address the biases causing racial and ethnic disparities in confinement in the American youth justice system.

“The research is clear that incarceration is not necessary or effective in the vast majority of delinquency cases,” said Richard Mendel, Senior Research Fellow at The Sentencing Project. “Most state and local youth justice systems continue to employ problematic policies and practices that often lead to incarceration of youth who pose minimal or modest risk to public safety. It’s essential that state and local jurisdictions seize every opportunity to keep young people safely at home with their families, in their schools, and communities.”

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