“Education was critical to putting me on the right path. It showed me that there was a way out, a way to a better life. Giving kids guidance and opportunities to improve themselves fosters hope and a positive outlook. It gives them a chance to build a future.”
- Dameon Stackhouse.
Dameon was incarcerated when he earned a college degree with the NJ-STEP program. Currently, he is a Community Police Alliance Coordinator, bridging the gap between lay enforcement and communities. He attributes much of his success to the opportunities provided to him while incarcerated.
The juvenile justice system has been a topic of discussion for decades, with numerous challenges that need to be addressed. In the United States, studies (cited below) show that incarceration is associated with reduced mental and physical health, hampered educational opportunities, and limited post-release job prospects.
However, a growing movement towards rehabilitation and education-based programs offers hope for a better future. This article examines the key issues and barriers facing juvenile justice reform today and how organizations like Nucleos are working to address these challenges by providing education and training programs to young people in the system.
Understanding the problem
Studies have shown that the current juvenile detention system does not effectively decrease crime or delinquency behavior. In fact, strong correlations are found between being detained as a juvenile and being detained (and incarcerated) as an adult. Based on research from the Sentencing Project and Youth.gov, here are the key things to know:
1: Incarceration provides counterproductive outcomes for juveniles
Not only does incarceration not reduce delinquency in youth, but it also significantly damages their mental and physical health. Upon release from detainment, juveniles are unlikely to re-enroll in high school and are considerably less likely to attend college. They are more likely to have depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. To make matters worse, incarcerating youth have decreased employment levels and lifetime earnings.
2: Incarceration misses three critical aspects of adolescent development
Children who end up in the system often have lower maturity or unresolved childhood drama. Incarceration does not help adolescents mature, and lacks the mental health support to help them cope with trauma. Three key things aid in maturity and dealing with traumatic experiences for youth.
1. An actively involved parent figure
2. Social groups that value academic success and positive relationships
3. An environment that fosters critical thinking and decision-making skills
While this is a concern, there are many solutions available. Companies like Nucleos help expand access to education and make it easier to deliver digital learning to address these concerns.
3: Alternative solutions should be used to reduce delinquency
So, what can be done to reduce delinquent behavior instead of incarceration? The Sentencing Project found that community-led programs, high-quality education, and counseling are more effective than incarceration and cost significantly less. Programs led by community members, including grassroots organizations, religious groups, and system-impacted people, are particularly effective. Therapy has also been effective in helping individuals and their families understand the root causes of delinquency and how to address it.
Barriers to effectively reducing delinquency and youth incarceration
With research in hand, many states have made an effort to change juvenile justice systems. An emphasis on restorative justice can lead to much more positive outcomes. However, there are still some issues to address.
One of the most significant issues facing juvenile justice reform is the issue of racial disparity. Studies have consistently shown that children of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. This is a problem that cannot be ignored. It is a symptom of a larger issue of systemic racism that has plagued our country for centuries. Studies have found that these disparities at detention are driven, at least in part, by biased decision-making against the youth of color.
Communities with higher percentages of people of color often have less funding for community-led programs, and families might be unable to afford therapy. This means that not only are they more likely to be incarcerated, but youth of color often do not have access to the tools needed to address delinquent behavior. Providing adequate funding for restorative justice resources in underserved communities is key to addressing this issue.
Another major issue facing juvenile justice reform is mental health. Many children in the juvenile justice system have underlying mental health issues that are not being helped. Incarceration and confinement are simply punishments, but the current system does nothing to address the root problem. This can lead to a cycle of recidivism, as these children are not receiving the support and treatment they need to work on their mental health issues. Solving this problem requires investment in children's mental health services and resources.
Improvements are being made
Today, there are reasons to be optimistic. Over the past 20 years, the total number of juveniles in detention centers has drastically decreased. Public perception of delinquency has also improved, with people across political parties agreeing that reform is needed.
A growing amount of bipartisan support for justice reform, especially for juveniles, has been shown. There are vital examples, including the First Step Law and reform in Kansas. The trend of bipartisan support for justice reform is a great sign for things to come.
Today more than ever, correctional agencies have access to high-quality education tools. Companies like Nucleos provide modern education programs to help juveniles earn GEDs and trade certifications. They also address mental health concerns by enabling communication with communities of care through partners. These services are offered at no cost to the incarcerated person or their family, who are often financially strained.
Youth Advocacy Programs (YAP) are becoming widely available on the community front, supporting over 20,000 system-impacted juveniles. Formerly incarcerated advocates like Dameon Stackhouse share how education and restorative justice changed his life. Companies and non-profits are starting to provide education to involve kids in programs that aid in adolescent development.
The juvenile justice system's issues are complex. It is well-documented that fostering adolescent development reduces delinquency and crime rates for youth, but minimal change has been made. However, with bipartisan support for reform and shifting attitudes, science-backed solutions are starting to be implemented.
State governments, community groups, and organizations like Nucleos are making a difference by providing programs and working with reform agencies to advocate for change. To create a more just and safe society, it's critical to continue to support initiatives to transform the juvenile justice system through restorative justice.