Transforming America’s Juvenile Justice System

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Over the past five years, public scandals about the way young people are treated in America’s juvenile justice facilities have erupted in state after state.

This year, two teenage boys incarcerated in the same cell in a California youth institution were found hanged, in apparent suicides. A month later, experts retained by the state found that juveniles were incarcerated in abominable conditions, with youths attending classes while confined in cages, feces spread on the walls of some youths’ cells and extraordinarily high levels of violence.

In Maryland, the U.S. Justice Department strongly criticized conditions in the state’s juvenile justice facilities, citing beatings of youth by staff, along with inadequate mental health care and educational programming and chronic overcrowding in antiquated facilities. The in-custody death of youths in Florida, Louisiana and South Dakota have all precipitated calls for reform in those states and, in some cases, have resulted in facilities closing.

For those of us with years of experience in juvenile justice, these short-lived periods of concern are all too familiar. Too often, institutional cycles are characterized by scandal, earnest cries for reform, temporary concern over conditions, gradual entropy and, once again, scandal.

There have been exceptions. In the 1970s, all of the large, locked facilities in Massachusetts were closed under the leadership of Department of Youth Services Commissioner Jerome Miller, and the youth were funneled into community-based programs. Follow-up studies by Harvard University and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that graduates of Miller’s community-based system were half as likely to matriculate into adult prisons as were youth who went through the previous, institution-based system.

Juvenile justice watchers were disappointed, however, when a model that produced such outcomes failed to spread far and wide.

Likewise, in the 1980s Missouri closed its large training school, relying instead on small, home-like facilities for youth who needed to be held in secure confinement, and on a network of day-treatment programs for youth who could safely be placed in the community. The results of the “Missouri model,” promoted under the leadership of Youth Services Director Mark Steward, are impressive. Only 8 percent of youth released from Missouri’s facilities in 1999 were sentenced to adult incarceration within three years of release. The figure for Maryland is 30 percent.

Moreover, recent visitors to Missouri from other states have marveled at the differences between these sites and their states’ facilities: how the youth are engaged, alert and interactive, compared with the sullen, frightened personas common among their institutional populations.

Which once again raises the question: Why isn’t this model being replicated throughout the country?

One reason is that juvenile justice policy-making is still suffering from the effects of the demonization of young people during the 1990s, when Princeton University Professor John DiIulio captured the prevailing political mood by warning about a wave of “superpredator” adolescents. The racial and socioeconomic makeup of America’s incarcerated youth surely also helps those in power ignore juvenile justice generally, or, when confronted with a public scandal, enact piecemeal solutions to endemic problems. These factors, coupled with the belief that kids in my state are irrevocably different from Missouri youth, hinders the widespread adoption of juvenile justice reforms that make sense by any standard of measurement.

Finally, most policy-makers and youth correctional officials have simply never seen a juvenile justice system that is not dominated by the 19th century training school model. Since the Annie E. Casey Foundation began funding Missouri as a “model” youth corrections site two years ago, numerous delegations of elected officials and juvenile justice practitioners have toured the state’s system. Following one such tour, the Maryland Legislature passed a bill requiring that all facilities in Maryland be reduced to no larger than 48 beds. Policy-makers in Louisiana and California are discussing “Missouri-style” reforms in their states.

As elected officials from California to Maryland, from Louisiana to South Dakota and points between endeavor to reform their state’s juvenile justice systems, they should avoid cosmetic fixes designed merely to get them past today’s embarrassing headlines. Instead, they should confidently set a course that rids their states of harmful youth prisons, replacing their systems with community programs for those who don’t need to be locked up, and small, rehabilitative facilities for those who do.

Bart Lubow ( is a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Vincent Schiraldi ( is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.