New Report Shows that Juvenile Incarceration is Ineffective

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation confirms what we in the adolescent health field already know: Locking kids up does more harm than good. According to the report, not only does juvenile incarceration not stem crime, it also puts many youth in dangerous situations where they can be abused by staff and other youth, and live in fear of physical assault.

States spend an average of $88,000 a year for EACH YOUTH who is incarcerated, yet 75% of youth who leave juvenile detention are re-arrested within three years. The report also found that states with lower levels of juvenile confinement from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile arrests for violent crime than states with higher incarceration rates—showing that perhaps incarcerating youths is training them to be more criminal. In addition, incarceration exposes youth to further violence and abuse. According to reports released in 2010, one in eight confined youth have reported being sexually abused by staff or other youth, while 42 percent have feared physical attack.

The report contains several recommendations to juvenile justice officials, including policies that lock up only the most dangerous youth while finding non-residential solutions for most teen offenders, and adopting best practices for work with juveniles.

The Chickens Come Home to Roost

It’s October now, a mere three months after the budget cuts to teen pregnancy prevention programs and the suspension of the Cal-Learn program. We all knew that the short-sighted budgetary decisions that led to these program cuts would result in an increase in teen pregnancies, school drop-out, and more, but it still comes as a bit of a surprise that it has happened so fast. I was at a meeting this morning to discuss some recent, alarming trends that we’re seeing in San Diego County and it turns out that already, only one or two months into the school year (depending on the district—some schools started in early August), referrals to teen parent programs are higher than they’ve been in years. And what’s more, the teens who are coming in to the program are getting younger.

I don’t have the hard numbers yet–we’re working on gathering those from around the state–but from what I was told this morning, there are more 14 year-olds coming into the Adolescent Family Life Program (AFLP) in San Diego than there have been in the past. And, while it was common in the past for the men involved in these pregnancies to be older than the pregnant teen, now it’s getting more likely for the father to be a teen himself. From what I hear, this is not just a San Diego issue–AFLP program staff from around California are reporting similar data. While we certainly can’t blame all of these pregnancies on the elimination of the Community Challenge Grants, I do think we can safely say that the steady cuts made to teen pregnancy prevention programs since 2008, when we lost the Male Involvement Program and the TeenSmart Outreach program, are responsible for this uptick. And just as program cuts are responsible for an increase in teen pregnancies, the cuts to Cal-Learn, AFLP and Cal-SAFE (through flexibility) mean that there are fewer support services to help those teens when they do become pregnant. At my meeting we talked about teens who used to receive services through Cal-Learn to help them complete high school and be successful parents. These teens are getting lost in the Welfare-to-Work program. Their case managers aren’t helping them navigate the system, so many of them are losing money for child care, transportation and housing.

For so many years California was at the forefront of pregnancy prevention efforts. We were one of the most successful states in reducing our high teen birth rate, and our programs and services were the envy of TPP professionals from around the country. But since 2008 the government has been slowly but surely destroying all the programs that made that success possible. It’s really no surprise that we’re seeing an increase in the number of teen pregnancies. Our issue area isn’t one that can be dealt with once and then forgotten–there will always be new teens who need to learn refusal skills and safe sex strategies. I am very afraid of the ramifications of the Cal-Learn suspension and the TPP cuts. I’m afraid that too many teens will suffer from a lack of accurate information about preventing pregnancy. I’m afraid that many of them will become pregnant, and when they do, they’ll find that there is no one, no program, no system, that can help them. I’m afraid for their futures. And I’m afraid for ours.