Why Close Youth Prisons?

by Josh MacPhee

Research consistently suggests that youth incarceration does not in fact “lower” crime and is not cost-effective. In fact, incarceration mainly insures that those young people who are impacted will end up in the adult criminal legal system.

Jeffrey Fagan (2010) suggests that despite the “raw emotional politics” of violent crime, diverting minors from prison invariably becomes the better option, given that for many harsh punishment is neither a “socially productive nor a principled path.” He cites studies that find adolescents who are punished as adults are rearrested and imprisoned “more often, more quickly, and for more serious crimes.” In addition, he argues lengthened sentences for juvenile offenders do nothing to lower crime rates.

“Incarceration at a young age not only increases the risk of future incarceration, it mortgages the long-term prospects of young males for marriage, employment, and social stability over a lifetime,” Fagan writes. “Even a short spell in detention adversely influences the outcomes of cases once they get to court, tipping the odds toward harsher punishment instead of diversion or probation.”

Moreover, Fagan writes, youths in prison are less likely to receive education and other essential services, and more likely to be victims of physical violence and have more psychological problems.

“While the law has moved toward increasing the incarceration of younger teens, social and biological evidence suggests moving in the other direction,” Fagan writes.

The case is open and shut. Youth who commit crimes need alternatives to incarceration in community settings. They should not be imprisoned. It now costs us an average of $90,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in Illinois. Can’t we think of something better and less destructive to do with this money? Of course we can!