To Understand Juvenile Detention, Listen to the Kids Inside

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John LashThere is a world within prisons that only the prisoners know. Correctional officers, administrators, counselors and academics may all have access to a part of the life of a prisoner, but these windows by their nature only offer a limited view of the happenings behind the barbed wire. There's a disconnect that makes it difficult to see that world through a prisoner’s eyes. One way to bridge this gap in information is to go directly to the source: the prisoners.

The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators recently featured a short article by Kim Godfrey, the Executive Director of Performance Based Standards Learning Institute (PbSLi). PbSLi was an outgrowth of increasing awareness in the 1990s that youth prisons were dangerous for both staff and inmates and ineffective in providing strategies of rehabilitation. A congressionally mandated report resulted in a call for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to create adequate nationwide standards for juvenile facilities. Part of their work is the collection of data, and then putting the data into context in relation to best practices.

The article focuses on PbSLi’s latest brief, “What Youths Say Matters.” Godfrey writes: “I realize that what youths say about their experiences in custody is essential to understanding the truth about what happens in juvenile facilities and provides crucial information needed to manage safe and healthy juvenile facilities.” This, based on her 20 years of listening to and asking questions of kids in detention is a profound (and seldom embraced) position in the world of juvenile justice reform.

The findings focused on PbSLi’s research as well as the Pathways to Desistancestudy, and show a direct link between the quality of a youth’s experience in detention and their continued involvement in the system and likelihood to commit new offenses. “Youths perceiving a generally more positive facility experience were about 36 percent less likely to continue offending, according to self reports, and about 49 percent less likely to continue according to arrest and/or return to placement reports.”

This flies in the face of the popular idea that negative experiences while incarcerated somehow transform into positive outcomes. “Feeling safe” led to a 6 percent decline in “system involvement and antisocial behavior.” A perception of the fairness and harshness of the facility, along with interaction with antisocial peers also impacted how likely kids were to get back into criminal activity.

Simple strategies focused on youths understanding the facility’s rules, perceiving staff as helpful and school as good, coupled with less segregation, have been shown to correlate with an overall more positive experience. Most telling is the brief’s statement that, “Researchers and experienced professionals agree that staff-youth relationships have the greatest influence on a youth’s experience and ... offer the single largest opportunity to impact safety and rehabilitation.”

This is a key understanding that still has a long way to go in being widely accepted in the juvenile justice field. Too often punitive environments modeled on adult prisons remain in place, leaving no room for the kind of stable and positive adult-youth relationships that form the foundation of how kids become adults. This research should be disseminated widely. It not only make financial sense by reducing costly detentions, it makes moral sense that kids deserve to be treated as kids, no matter what they have done.