Don't `give up' on them

December 11, 2007

After more than a decade's worth of tough-on-crime policies dumped more juvenile offenders into adult prisons, the pendulum is swinging back, according to two new studies. A majority of Americans polled in MacArthur Foundation-sponsored surveys favor rehabilitation over incarceration and are willing to spend more money toward that end. The public's preference should be reflected in juvenile justice policies and law, but attitudes in many state capitals will have to change for that to happen.

Maryland remains a state where teens as young as 14 can be tried as adults and imprisoned for their crimes. But Maryland also allows for the transfer of a youth accused of a serious crime to the juvenile court. And reforms under way reflect an evolving state policy toward the treatment of juvenile offenders, reforms that should benefit more kids than they do now.

Taking Missouri's juvenile justice system as a model, the state has closed large detention centers that had become dangerous mini-prisons and adopted a reform plan that would house serious juvenile offenders in smaller, regional treatment-oriented facilities and rely on community placements and therapies with a proven record to deal with other young offenders.

The reforms are still a work in progress here. But the MacArthur-backed surveys offer ample support for the state to continue its work and for other states to rebuild outdated and broken systems.

One poll commissioned by the Center for Children's Law and Policy found that 89 percent of respondents agreed that juvenile offenders have the potential to reform, and 75 percent felt that imprisoning teenagers without rehabilitation is akin to "giving up on them." A majority also supported smaller rehabilitation facilities for juveniles, which should encourage Maryland in its efforts.

The second study, by researchers Alex R. Piquero and Laurence Steinberg, focused on the public's support of reform programs in four states - and it found that more people would pay higher taxes to rehabilitate juvenile offenders than imprison them. While the study skirted the issue of the public's attitude on rehabilitating juveniles convicted of more serious crimes than robbery, the two surveys together make a compelling case for juvenile justice systems to focus their money and policies on re-education, training and treatment for youthful offenders.

It's not only in the public's interest, it's a matter of public safety.

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