Written by Claudia Gilburd, Founder of Teen Law School, Inc.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of America’s leading research and advocacy organizations focused on child welfare and juvenile justice issues.  Last month, it published its highly anticipated position paper on juvenile incarceration in our country and concluded that our long-standing, heavy reliance on large, prison-like correctional institutions has created a systemic cure that is worse than the problem it was designed to correct.  Specifically, the report demonstrates that these facilities are frequently: (1) dangerous, (2) ineffective, (3) unnecessary, (4) obsolete, (5) wasteful, and (6) inadequate. Contrary to the article’s position on the effectiveness of incarceration, statistics indicate that preventative and diversion methods of sentencing are more effective in reducing recidivism for juveniles.

The report finds that states which have reduced their use of juvenile confinement in recent years have also experienced reductions in juvenile crime when compared to states which have maintained or increased their correctional facility populations. Overall, the body of evidence produced by criminologists country wide agrees and indicates plainly that confinement in youth corrections facilities doesn’t work as well to reduce re-occurring crime as does a strategy designed to steer delinquent youth away from crime in the first place.  

Thankfully, Arizona is one of those states which has seen a reduction in its use of incarceration for juvenile offenders in recent years.  According to its annual report, Juveniles Processed in the Arizona Court System, FY 2010, our state’s juvenile commitments have declined consistently from a high of 1,670 youth in 1998 to last year’s 751 juveniles committed to confined care. 

Arizona’s report indicates that 53.1% of the juveniles committed to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections in 2010 had eight or more prior criminal offenses, suggesting that the majority of commitments are repeat offenders.  44.2% of the juveniles committed in 2010 were committed for obstruction of justice offenses such as probation and parole violations.

Clearly, the deeper a youth travels into the criminal justice system, the harder it is to find a way out.  The articles suggest most kids who commit a “delinquent act” (one which would be a crime if an adult did it) or an “incorrigible act” (one that would not be a crime if an adult did it) do not re-offend.  There are no reliable national statistics on the recidivism of low level offenders because jurisdictions report juvenile crime in varying manners.  However, studies indicate diversion programs, community service, peer and parental scorn or a combination of them all seem to reduce recidivism in most juvenile offenders. 

It is true that there will be some juveniles who will not react favorably to treatments, therapies, counseling and other diversionary programs meant to prevent future criminal behavior. Many have more difficulty managing their behavior for a multitude of reasons ranging from entrenched defiance to mental health and substance abuse issues.   Also, the requirements of the probationary programs increase in response to the severity or frequency of the youth’s criminal behavior. A juvenile can have his probation violated for as little as missing a scheduled appointment with his probation officer due to lack of transportation or lacking the financial capacity to pay for therapists or probation fees. 44.2% percent of minors incarcerated in the juvenile correction facility had their probation violated for these types of technical violations last year.

In conclusion, there will never be a perfect cure that eliminates all forms of juvenile criminal behavior.  As referenced above, there will always be a percentage of juveniles who will not react positively to preventive measures.  Nonetheless, these new studies strongly indicate that our future focus should be on support and prevention rather than incarceration if we wish to decrease reoccurrence of juvenile crime.  Incarceration is “No Place For Kids”. 

To read the very informative report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, visit http://goo.gl/YY06A.  To learn more about Arizona’s juvenile justice statistics, visit http://goo.gl/W358a.

To learn more about Teen Law School and its diversion programming for juvenile offenders, as well as  its preventive, educational workshops for teens and parents on the Arizona laws that govern typical teenage life, contact the author at info@teenlawschool.com.

Your Family and the Law is written by Claudia Gilburd, Founder of Teen Law School, Inc. for the clients and friends of Davis Milles Law Firm.  For more information about Teen Law School and its workshops for teens  and parents, please visit www.teenlawschool.com.   Claudia is not an attorney, but works closely with attorneys in her organization. Davis Miles attorneys are always ready to help your family navigate the legal issues you might face and defend your rights and best interests through them all.