The “Throw ‘Em in Jail,” Approach Doesn’t Work

Kilmainham JailRecidivism is a dirty word. Concretely it describes those who are imprisoned for a crime, serve time, and get out only to end up back behind bars. In the abstract it represents failure on a number of levels, not least of which is the failure of our current system to properly address and curtail criminal behavior.

Those familiar with my work here might recall that I examined this problem from a number of angles during my last tenure here. Once More, Rehabilitation Urged Over Incarceration, Recidivism May Be Worse Than We Think, and Education Based Incarceration in Southern California to name a few.  Those were written in mid to late 2010 so it’s time to take a look at what changes may have occurred over the past year.

One positive step forward comes to us in the form of a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new report, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration assembles a vast array of evidence to demonstrate that incarcerating kids doesn’t work: Youth prisons do not reduce future offending, they waste taxpayer dollars, and they frequently expose youth to dangerous and abusive conditions. The report also shows that many states have substantially reduced their juvenile correctional facility populations in recent years, and it finds that these states have seen no resulting increase in juvenile crime or violence. Finally, the report highlights successful reform efforts from several states and provides recommendations for how states can reduce juvenile incarceration rates and redesign their juvenile correction systems to better serve young people and the public.

As I had predicted then,  the accumulation of evidence causes the conclusion to become clearer and clearer: simple incarceration simply does not work. Brian Zumhagen writes on the WNYC News Blog that the empirical evidence from New York supports these findings:

Over the past decade, New York City has reduced the number of kids it sends to upstate facilities by more than 60 percent, according to New York City’s Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi.

At the same time, he says, the number of serious felony arrests for city juveniles has declined by more than 25 percent.

Rehabilitation, not incarceration, is the key.

In my next blog post I’l be taking a look at the current situation in Texas, where they stopped locking up juvenile offenders for non-felony crimes back in 2007.

Image by amanderson2 on Flickr, used under it’s Creative Commons license

One comment

  1. Bill Norrid says:

    Blog on ‘human exposure blog’ ( on 3/27/2011

    I recall a recent Austin Statesman article discussing the need to take steps to rehabilitate youth in order to reduce recidivism, This is excellent, and it is an enlightened civilization that recognizes the value in youth rehabilitation. My question is, once a person turns 17 they are “adults” and, that emphasis on revising the youth brain at a time when the brain is still developing is dropped. I believe it is a serious mistake to establish 17 as the cut off to correct a young brain. The brain is in the most active time of developing (in all areas relevant to what might be crime), between the ages of 15 to 25. And, many persons develop into “adulthood” at slower rates than others. It is a serious lapse of rationalization to simply stop considering ways to reform the brain so that it might become “non-criminal” at the age of 17. I firmly believe that our society will be better off if the courts consider treatment of a person, in terms of his/her emotional/intellectual development instead of just age. I believe that there are many, many individuals who, had they been considered as on the developmental “cuff” from youth to adult hood when contemplating punishment for crime, and treated appropriate to their development not just their age, would now be productive citizens, and not criminals. The rate of emotional and intellectual development into adulthood naturally varies among NORMAL individuals IT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE TO THROW A NORMAL PERSON, WHOSE EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT TO ADULTHOOD, TAKES LONGER THAN MOST BUT IS STILL WITHIN AN ACCEPTABLE RANGE, INTO THE ADULT SYSTEM OF PUNISHMENT AND REFORM. IT WOULD SEEM THAT THE LIKELIHOOD OF SUCCESS IN RECTIFICATION IS GREATER IF THEY ARE ENTERED INTO AN APPROPRIATE TREATMENT (AND/OR INCARCERATION) STRUCTURED TOWARD A YOUTH, AND/OR YOUTH TO ADULT SYSTEM.
    Is there any research on or effort to establish a criminal justice system that recognizes a range of youth to adult development (as opposed to just a cutoff age) as a dominate characteristic of that system?

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