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Much has been written about our country’s problem with mass incarceration and its devastating impacts on individual lives, families and communities. Despite extensive research showing that incarceration is especially harmful for young people and doesn’t contribute to public safety1, we still detain and incarcerate children and youth, mostly for non-violent offenses. Incarceration imposes trauma, disconnects youth from their families and communities, interrupts their education and development, and compounds the stigma of a juvenile court record and court-ordered financial obligations. These setbacks can create big barriers to safe and stable housing and employment, access to health care, and independence. Prison isn’t a solution; it creates more problems.
There is a movement across the country to dismantle the structures that push youth into the deep end of the criminal justice system. Examples include successful efforts to close juvenile prisons2 and eliminate the use of local detention for non-violent offenses and for non-criminal reasons. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a tremendous reduction in the numbers and rates of youth incarceration. Since 1997, national incarceration rates for youth under 21 years old dropped 54%. Washington State experienced an almost 60% reduction in the same time period.
Despite these reductions, there are persistent and worsening disparities for certain groups of youth due in large part to institutional racism. The Urban Institute in 2019 reported, “The movement away from youth incarceration has not benefited everyone equally, and today, compared with a decade ago, youth of color are pulled into the system and kept there at even more disproportionate levels than their White counterparts … The disproportionality cannot be accounted for by differential crime rates alone; rather, it stems from a wide range of factors including systemic inequality and differential access to prevention and diversion support.”
Right now, we have tremendous opportunities and momentum to push for an end to the use of incarceration and other punitive approaches to addressing the needs of youth. We are at or approaching our lowest numbers and rates of youth crime and youth incarceration.3 We also have greater analyses of the decision points that can either propel youth into the juvenile court system or divert them to more effective community-based supports. Increasing pathways for diversion, shifting resources and decision-making to impacted communities, and replacing punitive approaches with public health and youth development strategies are powerful catalysts for transforming the way we support young people. The strides we’ve made in Washington State reflect the kind of big shifts that we need to address disparities and discontinue the use of punitive and carceral strategies in response to youth behaviors. For example, King County shifted oversight of the juvenile detention facility away from adult corrections to public health. In 2018, we successfully advocated for a substantial expansion of state law, allowing a way for almost any juvenile criminal offense to be diverted to community-based programs rather than formal prosecution. In 2019, the WA state legislature passed a law to phase out the use of detention for youth who have not committed crimes.
The opportunities for big changes exist, but our institutions need the advocacy and engagement of communities that are most directly impacted by the failings of our current systems. Community voices can ignite and fuel bold transformative change. As legal advocates for youth, TeamChild has supported and seen the creativity, hope, and power that youth bring to create solutions to advance their goals. In our drive to end incarceration and punishment, young people need to be at the center of developing better strategies to meet their needs. When we are successful, we’ll not only be able to invest in better solutions, we’ll also eliminate the compounding negative impacts of this harmful practice, creating a better future not just for youth, but for all of us.
Some ways to get involved:
- In addition to supporting TeamChild, consider supporting grassroots organizations in your community. (Some of our local partners include South King County Discipline Coalition and Every Student Counts Alliance.)
- Join the cause: Connect with the National Juvenile Justice Network and No Kids In Prison to learn more about what efforts are happening where you are.
- Support local and national legislation that decriminalizes young people and moves youth away from the court system, like The Ending PUSHOUT Act.
- Support young people in leadership roles and listen to young people willing to share their stories and perspectives. (Check out Jazzmine’s story on our blog.)