Locking fewer kids up?

Jan Vargas/Flickr

By Mary Kuhlman

Congress is set to consider updating a decades-old law that guides states on the custody and care of juveniles in the criminal-justice system.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was introduced late last week, and one big change would be providing incentives to states to lock up fewer children.

Time in detention can cause harm that follows kids for the rest of their lives, said investigative journalist Nell Bernstein.

"The ones that we incarcerate," she said, "are twice as likely, when you control for everything under the sun including the delinquent act, to end up as adult prisoners."

Indiana is among states moving away from incarcerating young offenders in favor of community-based rehabilitation, through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. In 2006, Marion County became the first JDAI site and reduced its detention admissions by 65 percent by 2012. Eleven more Indiana counties have joined the initiative, bringing the total to 19.

Decades ago, if a young person acted up in school, they went to the principal's

office, Bernstein said. Now, they go to a school-based police officer, in what has become the most common entry point into the criminal justice system. She said research backs up her belief that new techniques are needed to redirect troubled kids.

"There are not two kinds of kids, 'good' and 'bad.' It's a developmental phase," she said. "What the research also shows is those kids who go through that developmental phase, commit those illegal acts but are not incarcerated - those kids grow up and grow out of it."

Bernstein advocates for closing most juvenile detention facilities, saying treating the underlying issues closer to kids' homes has been proved to be more effective.

State leaders say the JDAI model has shown to encourage children to finish school, reduce recidivism and save money on detention costs.

The legislation is sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. JDAI is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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