Reduce, reform, replace and reinvest

This week, May 15-21, Youth First, a “national advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of youth by closing youth prisons and investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration and programs for youth,” is sponsoring National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.

In October 2016, the National Institutes of Justice, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Harvard Kennedy School, published The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model.

This report calls for the closure of youth prisons and “To succeed, such systems will need to close down all publicly operated or contracted youth prisons and build a developmentally appropriate continuum of services.” The report recommends four steps to accomplish this goal: reduce, reform, replace and reinvest.

Reducing the number of facilities that incarcerate youth is already occurring. Between 2001 and 2013, “there was a 53 percent decline in youth incarceration in the U.S., with youth incarceration declining by double digits in 48 states.”

The authors of this report believe that the number of incarcerated youth “can be reduced so significantly without risk to public safety” because “those who are sent to youth prisons are incarcerated for offenses that the public finds more amenable to community-based placement.

Nearly half (46 percent) of the young people who spent time in prisons in 2013 were not there for offenses against persons or were incarcerated for status offense; another 17 percent were incarcerated for technical violations of probation (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, (OJJDP), 2013).

“Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” a report from the National Research Council suggests that “most youth will age out of challenging behaviors if they do not experience the trauma and adverse conditions that convert normal, transitory risk-taking and impulsive behaviors into deeply embedded identity.”

For youth who are unable to age out of challenging behaviors and who need to be incarcerated, the authors recommend reforms such as placing these youth in “small., homelike facilities that are close enough to the youth’s home communities to maintain and encourage family involvement.”

Principles such as “limiting and structuring contact with antisocial peers and encouraging contact with prosocial peers, keeping youth close to their communities which is less disruptive to their developmental progress, involving parents and ensuring family engagement, providing a social context that has ample opportunity and structures for healthy development and that provides youth with the tools to deal with negative influences that might be present in the setting that they will encounter in the future and offering opportunities for academic success and activities that contribute to developing decision-making and critical thinking skills” should be the guiding principles for such facilities.

Probation reforms are also needed so that each case is carefully considered and a decision to confine is carefully reviewed. (Mendel, 2011). “Community corrections staff, whether public employees or staff of nonprofits, should be thoroughly trained on adolescent development and on positive youth development so they can deliver strengths-focused, trauma-informed care to the youth under their supervision, and can recommend removal from the home only when other options are exhausted.”

The phrase “positive youth justice” describes “an approach to building the strengths of youth in the delinquency system, rather than merely trying to extinguish their deficits.” The OJJDP “urges state advisory groups to create opportunities for at risk youth in obtaining (1) a sense of safety and structure, (2) a sense of belonging and membership, (3) a sense of self-worth and social contribution, (4) a sense of independence and control over one’s life, and (5) a sense of closeness in interpersonal relationships.”

Replacing current policies and practices with ones that “divert youth from entering the systems include rethinking zero-tolerance school discipline polices, making better use of police and diversion, and instituting detention reforms such as those mentioned in The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, “a public safety partnership focusing on reducing the unnecessary and harmful use of secure detention for low-risk juveniles.”

JDAI identified six “elements that represent the essential qualities of a reformed system: collaboration, data-driven policy and practice, racial and ethnic equity, youth well-being, family engagement and defense advocacy.”

Savings from “reducing the number of incarcerated youth, allow for reinvestment into “training, supervision and service.” A recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 79 percent of respondents strongly supported “diverting lower-level offenders from corrections facilities and investing the saving into probation and other alternatives.”

A national poll conducted by Youth First in 2016 found that “83 percent of respondents supported “provid(ing) financial incentives for states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration, such as intensive rehabilitation; rehabilitative programming such as education; job training; (and) community services and programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

Many states in the U.S. have already embarked on the journey to close youth prisons. We should celebrate their campaigns and successes every day.


Hale ‘Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Esther Solomon at For more information about Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i, please go to


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