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First, Do No Harm: Reducing Youth Institutionalization

April 10, 2015
Jim Moeser


[Part 2  in a series of posts celebrating NJJN's 10th anniversary and our nine principles of youth justice reform. See "Why Youth Reentry Matters"; "First,  Do No Harm"; "Got Gault? From Processing Youth to Due Process," Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and OpportunityBlocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison, and The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It. --Ed.]

This year is the 10th anniversary of the founding of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN). To celebrate, NJJN and its members are spotlighting the nine principles of youth justice reform that NJJN and its organizational members endorse. This month, the principle in the spotlight is “Reduce Institutionalization.” The principle could not be clearer, whether applied to youth in secure or non-secure settings. Namely, institutionalizing a youth should be a last resort, something done only when absolutely necessary to protect the safety of the community when legitimate community-based efforts have been unsuccessful. [You can find NJJN's policy platform on reducing youth incarceration here. --Ed.]

Why? It’s no secret that institutions are a poor substitute for promoting long-term behavior change and more often than not further disconnect a youth from family and the community in which they need to learn to live successfully. While many working in such institutions are committed to helping youth turn their lives around, experience and research both tell us that developing a solid, community-based alternative is often more effective and certainly more cost-effective than any form of institutionalization. In fact, two recent studies – Pathways to Desistance and one by the Council of State Governments – have shown that even youth who have committed serious violent offenses can be managed safely and effectively in the community. 

 So it’s good news that for well over a decade, more and more states and local jurisdictions have substantially reduced the number of youth in confinement, both in long-term juvenile correctional facilities as well as in local, more short-term detention settings. Those changes have been well-documented in a number of publications, including “The Comeback and Coming-from-Behind States,” published jointly in December 2013 by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. State after state is finding that reducing the number of youth in confinement does not come at the cost of public safety – in fact, the opposite seems to be true, as national rates of violent youth crime have dropped to their lowest level in over 30 years.

 And as we celebrate NJJN’s 10th anniversary it’s only fitting to note that advocates have played a key role in bringing down incarceration rates. For example, my organization, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF), played a leading role in educating stakeholders about adolescent development and pushing for systemic changes that reduced the use of short-term detention in Wisconsin by 35 percent between 2006 and 2011. In addition, as a representative of WCCF, I chaired the governor’s commission that recommended that one of Wisconsin’s youth prisons, the Ethan Allen School for Boys, be shuttered. (It was closed in 2011.) These changes contributed to a 49 percent reduction in the rate of confined youth per 100,000 youth in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2011.

 But reducing institutionalization is about something more than numbers. It is about understanding the importance of “first, do no harm” when responding to youth whose lives have already gone off track. It is about understanding how adverse childhood experiences and other risk factors, so often beyond the youth’s control, can put them at a disadvantage as they enter the all-important developmental years of adolescence. It is about understanding and doing the hard work to hold youth accountable for the harm they may cause, but doing so in ways that helps the youth move forward while reducing the chances that they will victimize others in the future. And, it is about understanding that incarceration -- taking away someone’s freedom -- is not only morally wrong, but delays normal patterns of “aging out” of delinquent behavior because it interrupts a child’s natural engagement with families, school and work.

 Advocates are making progress in sharing this broader understanding of what it means to reduce institutionalization, but our work is far from done. Every day in our states, in our communities, there are youth who are institutionalized unnecessarily – and worse yet, as the number of youth being incarcerated has dropped, the proportion of youth of color who are incarcerated has increased. We can celebrate our progress in the last ten years, but we cannot forget that our legacy will be defined by the next ten years as well. 

juvenile-justice-reform_Jim-Moeser Jim Moeser is the Deputy Director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (an NJJN member). He has worked in juvenile justice for over 40 years, serving in a number of positions with the Dane County Juvenile Court Program in Madison, Wisconsin, including 16 years as the juvenile court administrator, and as the administrator for the State of Wisconsin Division of Juvenile Corrections in 2003. Jim has published articles on implementing Balanced and Restorative Justice principles in detention settings, co-edited The Desktop Guide to Juvenile Offender Reentry for Confinement Facilities, and co-authored several chapters in the recently released Desktop Guide to Good Practice for Working with Youth in Confinement. Currently, he serves as the chair of Wisconsin’s State Advisory Group on juvenile justice and as Vice-Chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Predention (OJJDP).  

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