For youthful offenders, incarceration doesn't always equal accountability

For youthful offenders, incarceration doesn't always equal accountability

Though one wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading or watching the local news, the overwhelming majority of crimes committed by children are relatively minor, non-violent, offenses. In fact, only about five percent of young people in the juvenile justice system are even accused of committing a violent crime.

Despite this low number, these young people are often categorically locked up in youth prison or prosecuted in adult courts and sent to adult jails and prisons regardless of whether or not it is best for public safety, or for them. However, two new reports — the just-released Smart, Safe and Fair, and Left Behind Kids — demonstrate that young people who have committed violent crimes, but are not at high risk to reoffend, can be safely and more cost-effectively served in the community.

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For youth charged with violent crimes, the most common response is to be sent to jail, even when it doesn’t help the young person or make their community safer. This is largely because we have demonized youthful crime, creating an image of young, mostly African American youth committing violent crimes in cities across the country. This misguided hysteria reached its peak in the 1980s and 90s, when conservative criminologists, and politicians across the political spectrum, predicted a wave of “juvenile superpredators.” That wave never appeared, and we have learned a lot in the intervening years about what works to keep young people from committing acts of violence.

While it may seem radical to serve youth in the community who have engaged in violent behavior, it’s one that many victims of crime support. In the newly released report, "Smart, Safe and Fair" — co-authored by the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Justice Policy Institute — crime victims and victims’ advocates themselves state that they want opportunities for young people to get the services and treatment they need so they are no longer involved in violence. For example, recent polling has shown that by a margin of three to one, crime victims prefer community-based rehabilitation and mental health and substance abuse treatment over incarceration because they understand it reduces recidivism rates, keeping us all safer.

We are routinely told that victims want the harshest punishments possible — long sentences in confinement; but victims are telling us clearly that what they want is accountability, and they are saying incarceration does not equal accountability. Rather than being sent to a distant prison, youth can be held more accountable in their own communities. Victims also emphasized that youth who have committed violent offenses have themselves frequently been victims of crime and do not receive the trauma-informed care and services they need to heal. Reminding us that “hurt people, hurt people,” they said investing adequate resources into effective community-based services, particularly for crime victims, is a much wiser investment than paying for prisons. In fact, it would result in safer, healthier communities and fewer victims in the future.

If we really want to reduce youth violence and help heal victims, we must pursue research-informed policies that recognize that even youth involved in violent behavior can be safely served in the community. Researchers, child advocates, practitioners, and most importantly, many victims of crime are increasingly calling for this path.

Nila Bala is associate director of criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute. Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.