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Why keeping young offenders out of jail could reduce crime

January 29, 2015 at 6:45 PM EDT
Juvenile offenders kept under supervision close to home, rather than in secure, state-run facilities, are significantly less likely to be arrested again or commit more serious crimes, according to a new study. Judy Woodruff discusses the findings with Xavier McElrath-Bey of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and Michael Thompson of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new report out today on the state of juvenile justice in the U.S. finds that outcomes are better for youth kept under supervision closer to home, rather than those in secure state-run facilities.

In fact, it shows that those arrested and then locked up in juvenile detention facilities are 21 percent more likely to be arrested again than those monitored closer to home. And those who commit a second offense after time in detention facilities are three times as likely to carry out more serious crimes later on.

With us to discuss the report are Xavier McElrath-Bey of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. And Michael Thompson, he’s director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. His group conducted the study for the state of Texas.

And we welcome you both.

Michael Thompson, to you first.

I read that you said there has never been a study done like this one. What did you mean by that and what were the main findings?

MICHAEL THOMPSON, Director, Council of State Governments Justice Center: Yes, we have never seen any state conduct a study like this. I mean, every state is seeing — or nearly every state is seeing a dramatic decline in the number of kids that it has in state-secure facilities.

But this study that Texas undertook is unlike anything done anywhere. We saw 1.3 million records pulled together over an eight-year period, a real exhaustive analysis that was done, that proves that really kids do, do better closer to home, kids staying under community supervision, instead of being in an incarceration setting.

We found that they were saving the state a lot of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, by closing these facilities and really putting the emphasis on community supervision. Very few states could conduct an analysis like, this yet it’s the kind of analysis that states everywhere should be conducting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was — what was so different about the community incarceration care for these young men and women that was from the state-run facilities?


I mean, when you hear it and you think about it, it really makes a lot of sense, right? I mean, what we have been doing is we have been pulling kids away from their community, sending them to a facility hundreds or thousands of miles away, interacting with staff who don’t look like them, don’t necessarily speak their language, uprooted from any kinds of ties they had in the community, further away from positive influences they had, like maybe family members or a pastor or a sibling.

And we expect there to be some tremendous corrective action when we’re putting them with a bunch of kids who maybe will have a negative influence on them because they’re a higher risk of reoffending. So, really, when we talk about it that way, we shouldn’t be surprised that those kids actually end up doing better when they’re closer to home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Xavier McElrath-Bey, you were in a detention facility when you were 13 years old. What did you learn from that experience about this?

XAVIER MCELRATH-BEY, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth: Well, at that age in particular, I was very much traumatized, to be quite honest with you.

I came from a household that contended with psychiatric disorders and substance abuse and a lot of very non-nurturing experiences I had as a child, and also faced with a lot of violence in my community.

So when you grow up in an environment like this and you are contending with such a sense of being unsafe and the feeling of being unnurtured, I feel like you naturally gravitate toward those things that give you the opposite impression. And for me in my life, that was the gang.

And the gang gave me a wealth of love and support. And, strangely enough, although it resulted in many poor decisions, it was what was, I would say, fundamentally needed for me in terms of my own development.

I would also say that recognizing these needs, you know, not only are we the only country in the world that overincarcerates kids, but we’re also the only country that’s known to sentence children to life without the possibility of parole.

I think this really flies in the face of what we know in terms of adolescent development. And it totally negates the reality that children have the capacity to change. And this is what we know, not just in terms of research, but also in terms of what we have seen with all the individuals that are coming out who have been able to have another chance at life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Xavier McElrath-Bey, let me stay with you for just a minute.

What is — what do you believe is different and helpful about a facility, about a treatment program that is closer to home? Because, in many cases, it’s going to involve — they’re going to be isolated from other youth. What’s better about it?

XAVIER MCELRATH-BEY: I think we need to keep in mind that the majority of the kids that are coming into the system have experienced a lot of adverse experience.

They have been traumatized by violence, by abuse within their homes. We know this through research. And when we put a child in an environment that only reinforces that negativity in their life, we cannot expect a child to have a positive outcome. In fact, more often than not, that does more harm. It only retraumatizes the child. It only exposes them to further abuse and neglect.

And it’s almost as if we have picked up for other individuals and systems that failed them. But I think we could take on a better approach with our kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael Thompson, what does it look like then from the standpoint of a state or a community? What do the results look like when young people come through a program that’s run at the community level?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Well, again, what we’re seeing is that the kids are doing better when they’re in this community-based program, instead of in a state correctional facility.

But we also know that just putting in a program doesn’t automatically ensure great results. We have seen here in Texas that they have plowed a lot of the money they have saved into community-based supervision and community-based services. But what we’re finding is that those programs are not always delivered in a way that’s consistent with what the research says works.

So, for example, we find different programs serving low-risk youth, and they’re connecting those low-risk youth to some medium- or higher-risk youth, and those kids in turn are having a bad influence on those lower-risk youth. And that’s simply pulling them further into the system.

So, we have to figure out a way to make sure that these programs are actually delivered in a way that’s consistent with what the research says works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Xavier McElrath-Bey, back to you. How do we know that the local community is going to be able to deal with some of the complex issues these young people can face? Is a local community always going to have that ability?

XAVIER MCELRATH-BEY: I think with — given the proper support, given an adequate amount of information and how to go about best practices, I think it could be very effective.

We know that incarceration is not the answer. I just think we need to direct more money, more resource, more funding towards community-based alternatives that are going to enable these children to be able to have more successful outcomes. We know that children have the capacity to change.

I always say, no child is born bad. And the reason why I say that is because, for the most part, the majority of kids that are growing up and coming into contact with the law, it’s because they come from some of the most poor, disinvested and impoverished communities. They come from communities that lack proper resources and adequate education.

And I think that if we can focus on how to better these areas of their lives, I think we can see some much better outcomes for the youth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Thompson, in terms of, again, whether it’s state governments, local governments, the resources they expend on these program, why are — why should they believe, the officials who are making these — making decisions about what to do, why should they believe that this is a more successful course?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Well, again, first of all, they’re going to save a lot of money going this route, instead of putting the emphasis on state incarceration. You know, $130,000 a year is what the state spends to incarcerate kids here in Texas in state correctional facilities, vs. spending $110,000 a year to put a kid under the right kind of community supervision and services.

But, again, we know that it’s not just a matter of money. We know that unless we actually match the right kids to the right services and give them the right intensity, we’re not going to get the results that are possible. And we’re seeing that across the country. And that’s why we think everybody needs to take a hard look, not just at how kids are doing once they’re under community supervision, but really holding programs accountable for particular results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Thompson joining us from Austin, Texas, Xavier McElrath-Bey joining us from Chicago, we thank you both.