In the U.S., more than 50,000 people aged 21 and younger are kept in juvenile justice facilities on any given day, according to the Department of Education. While that number may seem high, rates are decreasing. The incarceration rate has dramatically fallen since 1997, when the federal government began tracking it, from one in 400 youths to one in 1,000 youths in 2015, according to the Washington Post.
Additionally, younger people are staying out of jail and getting arrested less, according to the Post. The arrest rate dropped by about a third from 1993-2013, and younger people are arrested 23% less frequently than those in other generations, like generation X and baby boomers.
While the dropping rate is encouraging, juvenile recidivism is still an issue. The Department of Education states that nearly half of youth released find themselves back behind bars within three years. There are still barriers that stop youth from making a successful move back into school and the real world, which only help to contribute to recidivism.
“It is in the interest of every community to help incarcerated youth who are exiting the juvenile justice system build the skills they need to succeed in college and careers and to become productive citizens,” said then-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., in a 2016 Department of Education press release.
Reducing Juvenile Recidivism Requires Systemic Change
More than a quarter of youth who were in the justice system drop out of school within six months of being released, while just 15% of those released as ninth graders graduate within four years.
“Unfortunately, many barriers can prevent justice-involved youth from making a successful transition back to school,” King said in the press release. “We want to use every tool we have to help eliminate barriers for all students and ensure all young people can reach their full potential.”
For all young people, it may not be as easy a road. According to The Sentencing Project, black youths are 300% more likely to be arrested for assault, and 400% more likely to be imprisoned for it. In 2001, black youths were four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated – and now it’s grown to five times.
Stanford researchers Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Anneta Rattan found that people, regardless of prejudice or political beliefs, were more likely to support imprisoning a juvenile offender for life if they were presented with a photo of a black youth instead of a white youth, according to an opinion piece they wrote for the New York Times.
To effectively reduce recidivism, programs that target racial discrimination and social disparities must be presented to all stakeholders.
How to Move Forward: Effective Transitions
The Office of Safe and Healthy Students has a Transition Toolkit that presents strategies, practices and resources for school staff and others to help students who are entering, going through or leaving the justice system. The toolkit addresses working with all youth, as well as those who are disabled, have mental health disorders and are in the child welfare system.
In the toolkit are four core principles for reducing youth recidivism, outlined by the Council of State Governments in 2014. The principles are:
- Base all allocation decisions on validated risk and needs assessments results
- Adopt and effectively implement programs demonstrated to reduce recidivism while using data to evaluate system performance and improvements
- Use a collaborative approach across service systems to cater to needs
- Adhere system policies with the developmental needs of adolescents
According to the toolkit, transition planning should be proactive – youths should begin receiving strategies either before or as soon as they enter a correctional facility, and the transition assistance should come from multiple sources like officials, community service providers and educators. A strong transition plan requires a collaborative effort and regular communication among the key players as the youth moves across the four stages, which are:
- Stage 1: Entry into the System
- Stage 2: Residency
- Stage 3: Exit from Secure Care
- Stage 4: Aftercare
Additionally, all parties should work together to keep up with youth records and the written transition plan that is based on academic and behavioral assessments while making effective data-driven decisions.