Out of Juvenile Detention, Now What?

For many young people, it is difficult to get their lives back on track after being released from juvenile detention facilities, especially those from racial and ethnic minorities, a new study shows. What this new study doesn’t show is that in an era of mass incarceration and over criminalization of minor ‘offenses’ within certain communities and populations, that problems subsequent to detention are widely systemic, intersect with and often derives from the educational environments. It is within these environments that the school-to-prison pipeline emerges. Unfortunately, solution-finding and targeted changes to policies that lead to juvenile detention placements, are fragmented by design and provide superficial cures to identified problems.

This short-sighted approach allows the persistence of a long history of implementing policies out of which funds are misdirected and the general focus of these proposed targeted ‘fixes’ lead to less than positive outcomes. By now one would recognize that multi-level and comprehensive fixes are necessary for measurable and sustainable change that results in fewer detention center placements for youth who are considered ‘delinquent’- cross-systems approaches[esp. individual perspectives that spread and become system-wide, institutional bias].

Delinquent youth are at high risk for problems in adulthood. Some of the reasons why include a background of significant trauma and loss, limited social support or adult guidance, and limited academic success, according to study author Karen Abram. She is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The study included more than 1,800 people who had been in juvenile detention. The researchers checked in on them five and 12 years later. The investigators looked for educational achievement, independent living, no criminal activity, no substance abuse, parenting responsibility, relationships and gainful activity.

Twelve years after detention, only half of the participants had a high school degree or equivalent. Just one-fifth of males and one-third of females were working full time or in school, the study found.

Black and Hispanic males had worse outcomes than white males. Males had worse outcomes than females, the study revealed.

“Involvement in the juvenile justice system can lead to a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse,” Abram said in a university news release.

One area of hope for minorities: black and Hispanic young people were more likely to abstain from drug abuse than whites were, the findings showed.

Study senior author Linda Teplin said many middle- and upper-class youngsters who get in trouble don’t suffer the same consequences as poor kids. Teplin is director of the Health Disparities and Public Policy Program at Northwestern.

“For example, wealthier families are more likely to be able to afford treatment if their kids use drugs. So their children might never be arrested and incarcerated,” she said.

The findings suggest that for delinquent youth to succeed, they must receive help not only to give up crime, but to be given the opportunity for social stability and employment. I suggest more agencies begin to utilize restorative practices and design evidence based youth and family-oriented diversion programs. Initiatives such as these will serve as empowerment tools that are less disruptive to the lives of these delinquent youth.  Their family dynamics, the home environment, and educational experiences can be enhanced in ways that can positively alter life trajectory. Prison pipelines can be effectively derailed and forever dismantled.

“Our findings highlight the need to address racial and ethnic disparities, because who gets arrested and detained? It’s poor kids,” Teplin said. “And disproportionately, racial and ethnic minorities.” That underlies the overall reluctance to allocate funding, research, policies and programs aimed towards minimizing all disparity. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the poorer youth populations, particularly black or Hispanic,  benefit from the professed  ‘protected’ rights to equal opportunity for life success and get a fair chance to grow up to become productive citizens of this country and the world!

The study was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.



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