We all want a juvenile justice system that holds youth accountable when they commit an offense against us or others. Accountability is the trademark of democracy, and it is a trait we all should strive to perfect. But, despite out best intentions, when we attempt to hold youth accountable using the same options we use with adults, we get the opposite outcomes of what we hoped for. Our families and communities are not any safer. We have done nothing more than ensure that youth offenders will most likely grow up to be adult criminals.
Why is this? When using the same models for justice with youth and adults we are ignoring a basic biological fact that the brain is not fully developed until about 24 years of age. Without a fully developed cortex, youth are more impulsive, lack the ability to tie actions to long-term consequences, and are hypersensitive to the opinions of others.
A critical development need
Using adult-based justice models also ignores a critical developmental need during adolescence: having a sense of belonging. During this phase, it is critical that youth be surrounded with positive influences. Good caregivers show youth that they sincerely care about them. This includes providing tough love and teaching empathy. At the same time, youth need peer groups and friends who have a sense of hope and optimism for the future. You don’t find positive peer groups and friends when you are incarcerated.
Community-based youth intervention programs recognize and build upon the developmental phase of adolescence. That is why they are successful in teaching youth to be positive members of a community. They vary in how they work with youth. These programs include, but are not limited to, mentoring, restorative justice, after school programs, and even entrepreneurial skills building. Matching youth to appropriate programs has proven more effective than a one-size-fits-all approach.
These programs provide the outcomes we want from our juvenile justice system. In a recent survey completed by the Minnesota Office of Justice Program, the majority of youth in community-based youth intervention programs report better behavior in school and improved grades after participating in the program. They also report less use of drugs and alcohol, a better sense of self-control and a more positive outlook for the future than before they began the program. And 80 percent of youth do not commit new offenses when they are in a community-based youth intervention program.
Compare the costs
Youth intervention programs also save money. There are currently 51 community-based youth intervention programs that receive state funding. A social return on investment study concludes there is nearly a $15 return on each $1 investment in these programs. The average annual cost for one youth in an intervention program is about $2,000 per year compared to a cost of $86,000 to incarcerate a youth.
As a society we need to rethink our approach to young offenders. Understanding human development helps us spend our tax dollars wisely. The choice is clear: Increase funding to cost-effective youth intervention programs that help our youth become contributing members of society versus continuing to train our youth to be criminals.
Paul Meunier is the director of services for the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA).
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