Commentary: A better way to deal with young offenders

For decades, fueled by fear-mongering labels like “a generation of super-predators,” the United States turned to an ever-increasing reliance on adult-like prisons as the go-to response when young people break the law. This overreliance on incarceration resulted in an explosion in the number of youth behind bars. And we know that black and brown youth were, and are, much more likely to face incarceration for similar behavior as their white peers.

Thankfully, policymakers and others all over the country have begun to make smarter choices. They are responding to research, experience and common sense, all of which tell us that the most effective responses to get young people who have broken the law back on track can be in their own community. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen rates of juvenile incarceration more than halved while the juvenile crime rate has plummeted — demonstrating that we are not forced to choose between locking up more kids and being safe. In fact, treating kids close to home reduces recidivism, thereby actually keeping us all safer.

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In an increasing number of states, this progress is opening possibilities for fundamentally rethinking juvenile justice. We believe including the voice and perspectives of victims of crime is essential in this rethinking. A new report, “Smart, Safe and Fair: Strategies to Prevent Youth Violence, Heal Victims of Crime, and Reduce Racial Inequality,” lays out a blueprint for designing a new approach. Informed by research and conversations with crime victims, it provides ways to shape a more effective, just and humane juvenile justice system — one that promotes the well-being of victims and young people alike.

Redesigning our approach to young people who break the law requires tackling several long-standing challenges.

First, far too many young people are still locked up in brutal institutions. Rather than turning young lives around, these prisons for children are more likely to increase the odds of reoffending while simultaneously reducing the odds of educational or career success. These factories of failure don’t protect community safety, waste scarce public resources and contribute to unconscionable rates of racial and ethnic disparities. It’s past time to replace them with programs that hold young people accountable while helping them get on a path to long-term success.

Second, most of the decline in incarceration has focused on youth who have committed nonviolent crimes. For too many young people charged with a violent crime, being locked up in a secure facility remains a common response. Intuitively, this seems to make sense: Won’t locking up youth who commit violent crimes make our communities safer? It turns out it’s not that simple, or true, and what we really should look at is how likely it is that a youth will commit another offense.

As leaders of a national crime victim organization and child-focused foundation, respectively, we take the issue of youth involved in violent crime very seriously. We know that for too long, juvenile justice systems across the country have done a poor job of both responding to youth who commit a violent crime and meeting the needs of crime victims. Research shows that youth with nonviolent and violent offenses do better in terms of recidivism and long-term success when they stay close to home. Communities that have implemented effective, evidence-based programs have demonstrated that we can treat these youth in the community while keeping the public safe.

Despite what we hear from many politicians and prosecutors who often claim to speak on behalf of crime victims, many victims of crime are demanding change from a status quo that they see as costly, ineffective and unfair, and that does nothing to meet their needs. In fact, recent public opinion polling shows that by a margin of 3 to 1, crime victims prefer community-based rehabilitation and mental health and substance abuse treatment over incarceration.

The crime victims and victims’ advocates who provided feedback for “Smart, Safe and Fair” echoed these views. They recognize that many youth convicted of violent offenses can be better and more safely supported in their communities, with the right kinds of services and opportunities. They also remind us that many youth who break the law are often victims of crime themselves and do not receive the care and services they need to heal. Focusing on these issues differently, they said, would create safer, healthier communities for everyone.

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To truly reduce youth violence, help heal victims and reduce racial disparities, we must face the challenge of shifting youth out of prisons and into the community, including youth who have been involved in violent behavior but are at low risk of doing so again. This is a view shared by researchers, child advocates, practitioners and, perhaps most importantly, many victims of crime.

Mai Fernandez is the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Patrick McCarthy is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.