Eight Ways to Improve the Juvenile Justice Programs

John LashWe sat in blue plastic school desks. The room was all white, with gray metal cabinets. It was comfortably air conditioned, which was a nice break from the summer heat. There were 20 or so prisoners of different ages, in various states of boredom. The teacher, a counselor, was droning on about the “disease model” of drug addiction, trying to explain some outdated research and half-baked ideas about addiction.

I perked up a little at the word “disease” and ventured a question. “If drug addiction is a disease why do they put people in prison for it?” She couldn’t formulate a decent response, and finally said something like, “I just teach the class, and you have to be here, so let’s just get it over with.”

In nearly 25 years of incarceration I never participated in a mandated class or group that was effective. Never. Programs came and went. Usually they were rehashes of the same material, packaged in different ways. Sometimes they were polished presentations, but most of the time they were just flat out terrible. They were almost universally taught in the same manner, with all of us going through the motions. The saddest part to me was that the government had spent a lot of time and money buying or developing these programs, which were nominally rehabilitative, but they didn’t work.

Like those classes, a lot of things in the justice system don’t work, and this is especially true for youth justice. A myriad of problems face those who wish to change the way we do justice in America. Bureaucracy tends to favor approaches that give the appearance of effectiveness while maintaining the status quo, even if the practices in place produce horrible results.

Let’s imagine that things could be different though. But what could we do that is different?

One place to start is with a recent article in the New York Law School Law Review. It is written by Gabrielle Prisco, the director of the Juvenile Justice Project, a program of The Correctional Association of New York, or CA for short. The CA, a non–profit, has advocated for better practices in the justice system since 1844, and actually has legislative authority to conduct inspections and investigations of prisons. Prisco is in a good position to offer objective and informed recommendations that are unfettered by bureaucracy.

She gives us eight:

  1. Treating children as children, including raising the age of criminal responsibility.
  2. Matching remedy to risk by addressing children’s social service needs outside of the justice system.
  3. Funding only what works, including increasing community-based programming, eliminating facilities and programs that harm children, and ensuring that performance data is available to both the public and policymakers.
  4. Ending racial and ethnic inequality through rigorous action at the federal, state, local and community levels.
  5. Equal justice and culturally competent treatment for LGBTQ youth, through the creation of non-discrimination policies, culturally competent programming, training, and on-going evaluation.
  6. Engaging impacted children, families and communities. Involving these groups in key youth justice decisions results in better outcomes for children, including decreased recidivism rates.
  7. Justice is not for sale outlines some of the harms that result when for-profit corporations administer justice.
  8. Always have strong outside eyes makes clear that no jurisdiction, regardless of the good intentions of its leaders and agencies, should monitor its own system.

I have not seen a better set of guiding principles and goals. These eight address most of the issues that plague juvenile justice programs around the nation, and if acted upon would change the entire face of how we approach kids and justice.

The question is how we bridge the gap between government, victims, offenders and everyone impacted by juvenile justice issues. It will be difficult, but one thing I know is that it will take all of our investment and involvement. Unless we work to bring about change, things will stay the same.


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