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The Comeback States: Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States

juvenile-justice-reform_comeback-states-coverJUNE 2013

In state legislatures across the country, a new mentality on youth incarceration is emerging, dramatically reversing a troubling trend while also benefiting kids, saving taxpayer money and keeping communities safe.

After more than a decade of policies that relied heavily on the incarceration and imprisonment of youth, the number of youth confined in state and county facilities nationwide reached an alarming high in 2000, totaling more than 100,000 kids. Since then, a quiet revolution to reverse this trend has brought together advocates and policymakers across a broad spectrum of ideologies.

And the progress has been stunning. Since 2000, when the number of kids incarcerated was at a record high, the number of detained or incarcerated youth has decreased by nearly 40 percent nationwide, according to a new report, The Comeback States, by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), that examined national and state incarceration trends. (And it should be noted that many NJJN members in states that didn't make it into the report have also reduced youth incarceration significantly in their states.)

But not every state has seen the same drops, and there is still more work to be done if we want to keep our kids and communities safe.

Many youth are still placed in facilities that expose them to violence, disconnect them from their families and communities, and offer few pathways for rehabilitation that will strengthen the skills they need to become contributing members of society or help keep them from coming into contact with the law again. In fact, research has shown that incarcerating youth is ineffective at reducing delinquency, and can even increase it. (See NJJN's fact sheet, "The Truth About Consequences.") 

In states that have successfully reversed this troubling trend, previous policies that relied on the detention and incarceration of youth were replaced with policies that reflect the shift in public opinion away from a “one-size-fits-all” juvenile justice system. A greater understanding of the development of the teenage brain and adolescent development, decline in youth arrests, effectiveness of evidence-based alternatives, enhanced public safety, the growing cost of operating secure facilities, and the unflagging efforts of juvenile justice advocates paved the way for this new approach to ensuring the best outcomes for kids and communities. The children and neighborhoods of  every state deserve the same.

We can begin by working together to embrace some of the key policies that have proven successful in other state legislatures across the country, including:

It’s time for all states to make a comeback for our kids. We urge you to express support for fiscally sound, evidence-based policies that ensure accountability for youth who commit crimes while also creating opportunities for rehabilitation.

>>Download The Comeback States.

>>Download the updated and expanded report, "The Comeback and Coming-from-Behind States: An Update on Youth Incarceration in the United States."