Over 50,000 youth in the U.S. are detained in the juvenile prison system each year, as reported by Child Trends Database. Reform of the youth prison system is in high demand and must take place if any amount of change is expected in the U.S.’ youth inmates. Mentor programs for the incarcerated youth would have more positive outcomes than the current corrupt system.
With programs such as education and job training enforced in most juvenile prisons, it is expected of these children to re-enter society equipped for life after prison. However, a report published by the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice concluded that “the youth prison model is fraught with high costs, poor outcomes and endemic abuse.”
Youth prisons have been proven to cause more damage to children than reform. If we expect these children to change for the better, then the youth prison system needs to do the same.
USA Today reports that recidivism rates range from 50-75 percent within three years of a juvenile inmate’s release. This statistic should be unacceptable to the youth prison system in the U.S., but the repugnant system has seen no improvements.
The Associated Press conducted a survey in 2007 of every youth prison in the U.S. and revealed 13,000 cases of abuse. The Bureau of Justice found that one in 10 juvenile inmates report being sexually assaulted in prison. The Miami Herald recently exposed the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice staff for arranging fights between youth inmates and promoting violence for their own entertainment.
Under circumstances such as these, the incarcerated youth are still expected to leave prison as an improved version of who they were when they entered. If the prison system cannot provide a safe and positive environment, then it is unrealistic to expect this of the juvenile inmates.
The U.S. spends an average of $150,000 per year to detain each juvenile inmate, but they often leave prison worse off than when they arrived.
The youth prison system needs to own its duty of protecting its inmates, and linearly, the public.
Reform must begin with implementing programs outside of prisons and within the community that work to improve the youth. Programs should have a large network within the community that can connect youth to positive mentors and education.
Currently, the youth prison system is based on the adult prison system model. But as a child’s brain functions differently than an adult’s, this model proves to be ineffective for most.
The prison system is based on controlling the inmates and having few reform programs. However, youth prison systems should have reform programs as their main focus.
Community programs could be extremely beneficial to a child who has been in trouble with the law, rather than a prison system where the inmates are made to feel like another statistic. Programs where a child would be matched with a mentor would help with situations where children may not have many connections to adults who care for them.
This idea of reform for the youth prison system came to life in Texas, where policymakers reduced youth sentences and prohibited incarceration for minor offenses. This saved the state $150 million and enabled eight youth prisons to be closed.
The money saved from these prisons went toward counties where at-risk youth are prevalent and went into implementing community programs to help rather than punish youth. In just six years, youth arrests in Texas fell by 49 percent, according to the Washington Post.
Other states such as California, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio have followed Texas’ example of closing youth prisons and implementing effective community programs that assign youth mentors, provide education and extracurricular activities, and work toward the development of youth.
The outcomes of these programs have already proven to be more effective and cost efficient than the current youth prison models. The rest of the U.S. should lead by example and implement more effective techniques of reform for child inmates.
Funding should be focused on programs that promote a well-rounded and educated child rather than a corrupt prison system.
Samantha Moffett is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.