The Common Good

A New Direction for Juvenile Justice

Imagine a prison where an inmate asks to stay an extra two weeks beyond his release date. It sounds improbable, but that's just what "Bill," a former resident of Virginia's Natural Bridge Juvenile Correctional Center (NBJCC) did. Bill's story points to why we need better responses than prisons when youth get in trouble.

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Although it was a "correctional center," NBJCC was not a typical youth prison. There was no chain link fence topped with razor wire. Community members and college students flowed into the facility to volunteer. NBJCC residents flowed out into the community to work at local businesses, do volunteer work and, like Bill, attend classes at the local community college. In addition to his college classes, Bill also performed community service at a local food bank and was paid to help teach the high school math class at NBJCC. His dream is to be a middle school math teacher. So when Bill's release date fell before the semester ended, he asked to stay two extra weeks to take his final exams.

But all of this ended with a round of state budget cuts that abruptly closed the Natural Bridge facility. What was left for Bill and other youths sent to state custody? Only harsher youth prisons that don't currently have the kinds of programs the kids at NBJCC relied on to turn their lives around. Research and a century of experience have shown that the youth prison model is irretrievably broken. It is as obsolete as using leeches instead of antibiotics to treat infections. Relying primarily on them represents a step backward for our state juvenile justice system.

As states and localities face budget crises, we have opportunities to rethink, reform, and restructure our juvenile justice systems. Incarcerating kids is expensive, both in money spent now and in lives and income lost later. As John DiIulio notes in his Sojourners article, "More Religion, Less Juvenile Crime," the punitive "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach is also one of the least effective solutions for them and for our communities.

The faith community should lead the way forward not only in offering programming for youth, but also in urging our state and local governments to adopt the kinds of cost-effective measures that actually redeem young people from the path of delinquency. Here are three things communities can do:

  1. Create more community-based alternatives to juvenile detention and youth prisons. The vast majority of youth in custody have committed nonviolent offenses, and are not a danger to public safety. Encourage your community to use approaches such as those adopted by the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to reduce the number of youth in locked facilities and improve community safety.
  1. Repeal laws that make it easy to send youth to the adult justice system. Research shows that trying and sentencing children as adults makes them more likely to re-offend -- sooner, more often, and more violently -- than similar youth who stay in the juvenile system. Youth who are incarcerated with adults are also at higher risk for suicide and abuse.
  1. Move schools away from a "zero tolerance" approach to school discipline. Call on schools to shut down the "school to prison pipeline" by adopting positive and restorative justice strategies. In one Georgia school system, school-based police officers had been charging and arresting youth for discipline issues. When they stopped criminalizing these behaviors, the school system's graduation rates improved dramatically.

As people of faith, let's work to redeem and transform our juvenile justice systems as well as the young people who are inside them.

Liane Rozzell is the Executive Director of Families & Allies of Virginia's Youth.

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