Juvenile justice professionals have been reporting for some time that sentencing practices for juvenile offenders do not work. Roughly every 10 years, one or another commission is formed to assess the situation and each commission comes to this same conclusion, i.e., that important parts of the juvenile justice system are broken.
The most recent New York state report, by the Governor’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice, confirms that incarcerating children under the age of 16 in New York state prison facilities is attendant with mistreatment and child abuse—even as we are spending approximately $200,000 per incarcerated child per year! The task force report comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of New York juvenile facilities which documented disturbing incidents of excessive force by prison officials in apparent violation of juveniles’ constitutional rights. The Department of Justice has threatened a lawsuit against New York. A civil class action has already been filed.
What should we do? Well, for one thing, we do not need more studies. Concerned professionals, responsible community leaders and parents know that, for starters, we must end the (wholesale) practice of incarcerating juveniles, particularly youngsters who have committed non-violent minor offenses and who pose no threat to public safety. It seems clear that community-based alternatives to detention are more successful in reducing recidivism, and are also far less expensive.
There are important new models and programs for balancing public safety with the needs of juveniles which can help youngsters in trouble to become productive and responsible members of society.
In Missouri, which is at the forefront of juvenile offender reform, “restorative justice” is replacing retributive justice. While not losing sight of public safety concerns and community support for victims, the new perspective relies upon different service modalities, such as multisystemic therapy, diversion from the judicial system coupled with referrals to social services, victim/offender structured dialogue, family group meetings, mentoring, restitution and community service.
In Ohio, project RECLAIM, which stands for Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors, encourages juvenile courts to adopt community-based sentencing options, including objective risk assessment, intensive therapy and supervision, violence reduction programs, restitution and community service. Ohio’s juvenile correction system, together with local communities and juvenile courts, seeks to re-allocate funding for treatment of offenders in their home communities. RECLAIM is also credited with reducing racial disparity in Ohio’s juvenile correctional facilities.
Project Redeploy Illinois provides comprehensive services in that state’s communities, including therapeutic counseling, GPS monitoring, teen court, substance abuse treatment, and life skills education for non-violent youth offenders. State and local officials have reported that in the first two years of implementation of the project, institutional commitments have been reduced by nearly 44 percent and program costs averaged one-third the cost of incarceration.
In New York state, the Office of Children and Family Services has begun to close down inappropriate placement facilities, with the commitment to keeping more children in their home communities and offering meaningful therapeutic services. Family Court judges are endeavoring (with some understandable difficulty) to come up with alternatives to incarceration for juveniles, as is the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. The Red Hook Youth Court in Brooklyn, which grew out of concern over the obsolescence of traditional systems for handling the least serious levels of juvenile delinquency, has been an innovative, community-based justice center focused on both accountability and services. Youth court relies upon, among other things, peer group “trials” and family mediations. Harlem Hard HATS focuses on weekend community service projects.
All those involved in adapting new approaches to juvenile sentencing should explore making community service a cornerstone of their work whenever a non-incarcerative sentence, such as probation, is ordered. Community service today refers to court-based restorative justice, counseling and school-based learning.
New York’s Family Court judges have the statutory authority to require juveniles “to perform service for the common good.” And state appellate courts have approved sentences of 200-400 hours. Community service—properly structured to include therapeutic programs, education and adult supervision—helps youngsters to develop a sense of accountability and responsibility. It enables young offenders to realize the consequences of their actions while giving back to their communities, for example, by park cleanup and beautification, building maintenance, volunteering at shelters, churches, senior centers, boys and girls clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, and countless other worthwhile projects developed by local community organizations.
Richard M. Berman is a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York and a former New York state Family Court judge.