Prisons serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t house kids

Prisons serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t house kids
© Getty Images

It’s an apt time to ask some questions about incarceration in America. Congressional reformers have spent months working to enact the FIRST STEP Act, a solid proposal that focuses on helping prisoners make a successful reentry into society. Focus on this measure has been sidetracked in recent days by reports of prison strikes scattered across half a dozen states. Some advocates have used these strikes as an occasion to call for ending prisons altogether.  The idea of abolishing prisons is misguided, but we can all agree on certain policies to use them more fairly and effectively — specifically, reserving them for adults.

For the first time, we’re able to use technology to test our criminal justice policy and ensure that we’re actually meeting our goals of promoting both public safety and prisoner rehabilitation. That’s great news, because the tough-on-crime era has given states multibillion-dollar annual corrections budgets, overflowing court dockets and cash-strapped county jails. In response, states are getting smart on crime because taxpayers are willing to fund these institutions only if they’re fair and effective.

We should start by acknowledging that the phrase “fair and effective incarceration” is not an oxymoron. Prison abolitionists consider imprisoning criminals to be inherently unjust, and they frequently ascribe a nefarious, racist agenda to everyone in the corrections space. They focus exclusively on the notion of rehabilitating offenders through acceptance and support. But this misses a key element of criminal justice, which is, of course, justice.

Although you might not know it by following the news on highly placed politicians and bureaucrats, safe and orderly societies are based, in part, on the social contract that we have with our government to punish others on our behalf when they harm us. Justice is a threefold concept. It certainly includes forgiveness and compassion, but it also requires proportional punishment and taking steps to prevent future wrongdoing. Justice is not, must not, be political or personal. We do not derive pleasure from punishing people, but we have enacted procedures to do so objectively and appropriately when someone is truly culpable.

The system often falls short of the ideal, which is why it’s necessary to measure its outcomes and address its flaws. To achieve our goal of a fair and effective justice system, we must make sure it is compatible with all three elements of justice. One way to make that more likely is to make our policies square with what we learn from technology and social science.

Here’s something we can all agree on: One group that is not fairly or effectively incarcerated is 17-year-olds. Only four states – Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin – deny them access to juvenile justice systems, despite treating them as minors in all other contexts. In those states, 17-year-olds are at increased risk of abuse and self-harm in adult prisons and are more likely to commit additional crimes once released from prison, posing a public safety risk and creating more expenses for the justice system.

On the other hand, young offenders whose cases are handled in the juvenile justice system rather than the adult system have better outcomes: They are less likely to commit additional crimes, and keeping them out of adult systems ensures they’re protected from the hosts of risks they face there. The juvenile system relies on a team-based approach in which the judge, defense, prosecutor, family and social service providers work together. This ensures that the youth faces appropriate consequences for his actions while also getting access to the treatment, support or other resources he might need to finish his education and become a productive, law-abiding adult.

It seems particularly unjust to withhold the privileges of adulthood from this group while also assigning them the most fearsome liability of adulthood. If 17-year-olds lack the judgment to decide how to vote or whether to join the military, we surely cannot justify barring them from the institutions designed specifically to address their immaturity. Moreover, getting smart on crime means acting on the insights we glean from data and social research — insights that reveal that kids and communities both do better when minors face adjudication in a system designed to meet their particular needs. Although juvenile justice costs more per case than the adult system, there’s ample evidence to show that investing additional time and resources with young people sets them up for a lifetime of success. This all adds up to safer communities and long-term savings for the criminal justice system.

The debate about who to incarcerate and for how long and under what conditions will and should continue. But the best way to achieve prison closures is to enact sound criminal justice policy that will result in falling crime and recidivism rates — and raising the age of adult criminal liability to 18 in every state should be at the top of lawmakers’ to-reform lists.

Kahryn Riley is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a free-market research institute.