By Tasia Hawkins

On any given day there are up to 53,000 incarcerated children in the U.S., and we spend an average of $148,467 per year to keep each of them confined. 

Being poor and black are the biggest risk factors for being incarcerated before the age of 24. Black youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, despite being equally likely to commit a crime. But the largest risk factor for incarceration is class — boys from the poorest families are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than those from wealthy families. 

The right answer for juvenile justice is to abolish youth incarceration. Our country needs to eliminate a system that locks up those most vulnerable in our society, in favor of evidence-based solutions that restore and educate young people to have brighter futures. Recidivism rates as high as 80 percent show that incarceration isn’t the answer to getting a young person on the right track, and intermediate prison reform policies continue to allow dangerous environments for youth with no end in sight. 

If we truly want to create better futures for all young people of color, we should guarantee that in replacement of juvenile confinement, all court-involved youth under the age of 24 have access to community-based restorative justice programs and job guarantees. The option of incarceration should be eliminated, and the 80 juvenile prisons across the U.S. should be closed. 

Cruel sentences for children and young adults have been condemned by researchers in the field based on repeated evidence that people under the age of 25 have lower capacity for impulse control and risk avoidance than adults. Given the right resources, youth offenders are unlikely to reoffend and demonstrate a high capacity for change. By increasing the budget for rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, we can make sure youth get the resources they need to avoid continued offenses. Effective restorative justice programs for youth exist all over the country, with the goal of allowing offenders to face the people they’ve harmed and process the consequences of their actions. Programs like the Center for Court Innovation’s Youth Court teach teenagers how to take responsibility for their actions, be accountable to their community, and offer them the opportunity to change their actions as an alternative for more punitive measures. 

For young people involved in the criminal justice system early, it becomes highly likely they’ll continue to be wrapped in the cycle of incarceration — without the opportunity to get on track with school, find living wage job opportunities, and contribute to their communities. With expanded local job training and job guarantee programs for justice-involved youth, we could give young people the skills and financial stability needed to avoid incarceration. Summer youth employment programs in Chicago and Boston have proven to be an effective intervention for court-involved youth, leading to less violence and significantly fewer charges against youth who were employed for just 3 months. Without enough structured programs and job opportunities, unemployment rates for formerly incarcerated people continue to be five times the national average. Targeted resources that help justice-involved young people find a living-wage job can unlock long-term stability and reduce the likelihood of them reoffending.  

The abolishment of youth incarceration wouldn’t be a dramatically radical overhaul or release “criminals” back into our neighborhoods. It prioritizes real social change over punishing young people who need the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The actions that truly make our society safe are funding access to rehabilitation and employment; especially for communities where those vital resources have been neglected for most of the country’s history. Until we solve those problems, continuing to put people in prison isn’t a sustainable option. The $400 spent per day, per young person, on incarceration could be redistributed to education, community-based mental health programs, housing, and jobs — all of which would genuinely make our society a better place for everyone. 

We should challenge ourselves to picture a world where prisons aren’t necessary and where we build the solutions needed to truly restore our communities. The goal should be to end mass incarceration, and move past the idea that incarceration will ever be able to fix crime.

Tasia Hawkins is a first-year MPA student at NYU Wagner specializing in Social Impact, Innovation, and Investment. She is passionate about racial justice and works on economic opportunity initiatives at Google.

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