Five States Dramatically Reduce the Number of Youth in Juvenile Detention Centers

February 27, 2013

Removing young people who engage in delinquent behavior from their homes and communities and incarcerating them in locked facilities is no longer the status quo in five states, according to two reports released in February 2013 by the Justice Policy Institute.

Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth and Common Ground: Lessons Learned from Five States that Reduced Juvenile Confinement by More than Half, shed light on the pronounced trend toward reduced confinement of youth nationwide. Through a variety of methods, the reports find, Connecticut, Arizona, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Tennessee all reduced youth confinement by more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2010, with no resulting uptick in juvenile crime. 

A deeper look at Connecticut’s juvenile justice system reforms shows that, through a system-wide culture change and major investments in evidence-based services, a previously wasteful, punitive, ineffective, and often abusive juvenile justice system was transformed into a national model, at no additional cost to taxpayers (after adjusting for inflation).

Combined with a data snapshot showing state-by-state youth incarceration rates that is also being released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the two JPI reports put the trend toward reduced confinement of youth in context and offer lessons that reformers in other jurisdictions can adapt and use in their own communities.

“The success across these diverse states in reducing the number of youth in confinement shows that there is no reason other states can't halve their populations as well,” said Peter Leone, PhD., acting executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "And the fact that some ofthe highlighted states made progress without a major realignment in funding means that economic factors should not be an excuse to avoid reform efforts."

Common Ground: Lessons Learned from Five States that Reduced Juvenile Confinement by More than Half, explores the drivers of youth prison population reductions in Connecticut, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arizona and Minnesota- and provides insights for other states inspired to improve their juvenile justice systems.

“These states have taken advantage of circumstances, both good and bad, to reshape their juvenile systems away from the over-use of confinement and towards recognition that young people are different from adults; the reasons that put them in contact with the justice system are different and the way we respond to their behavior should be different,” said Spike Bradford, JPI senior research associate and author of Common Ground.

Common Ground makes the following recommendations to policymakers and service providers in other states looking to reform their juvenile justice systems:

  • Recognize opportunities to push change. The top performing states capitalized on falling arrest rates, budget shortfalls and litigation-driven reforms to shift their systems from confinement.
  • Consider the legal route. Many of the most effective reform movements have begun through the process of settling litigation. If conditions are poor and a case can be made, advocacy organizations have it in their power to kick-start reform by bringing a suit against the state.
  • Create/re-energize existing juvenile justice commissions/task forces to promote collaboration among stakeholders. These cross-system groups can ensure that litigation is truly a "call to action" and that there is buy-in from those decision makers who could push forward reforms.
  • Collect useful and reliable data and make it accessible. Progress can only be confirmed through measurement, so states should ensure that all agencies keep relevant data that enable them to track changes and make adjustments accordingly.
  • Utilize experts for technical assistance. Initiatives such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change project and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) are designed to help states coordinate reform and tailor it to their unique situation.
  • Promote a return to the American juvenile justice ideal of treating young people in trouble differently than adults and with therapeutic interventions rather than harsh punishment.

Read Common Ground in the link below, and read more about Juvenile Justice in Connecticut here.