Survey Shows Public Support for Fewer, and Smaller, Juvenile Facilities

A survey of 1,001 adults suggests wide support for the notion of relying less on incarceration to discipline juvenile delinquents, and for using small development-oriented facilities when it is necessary.

Some of the major results from the survey:

  • 87 percent support for financial incentives for states and communities to develop more alternatives to incarceration.
  • 69 percent agreed that incarceration is not required for “teaching youth who commit an offense to take responsibility for his or her actions.”
  • 80 percent agreed with the idea of requiring juvenile facilities to house no more than 31 youths at a time.

The results bolster the arguments made by a group of advocates and academicians that large juvenile justice facilities should be shuttered around the nation.

“Youth prisons are notoriously dangerous, ineffective, and outdated – and there is a clear consensus that it’s time to change the system,” said Liz Ryan, President of Youth First. “We know that kids can be rehabilitated without being locked up, if given the opportunity. States across the nation should unify behind this growing movement to close youth prison facilities and focus on solutions that actually work.”

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Justice Department hosted a discussion on a paper calling for an end to big facilities, led by two of its co-authors, Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy and Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice.

At the time, Schiraldi suggested to Youth Services Insider that they planned to pursue federal incentives for states to reorganize around smaller facilities and more community-based options.

“A lot of states have taken a big budget hit,” Schiraldi told YSI. “They have to start up community programs first, but they can’t do that and run the old facilities.”

But a small federal investment, he added, “might do it.”

The strong survey support for facilities holding 31 juveniles or less is interesting. For the average survey respondent, that number probably seems arbitrary; it’s hard to know how they’d interpret that in the course of survey. We assume there’s some inference from the question that the figure suggested what the questioner deemed an appropriate size.

According to recent federal data, about half of the juvenile facilities in the country house fewer than 20 people. But there are 247 housing between 50-100; 83 housing 101-200; and another 30 with more than 200.

Endorsement for a 31-or-less mark on juvenile population supports the Missouri approach to reforming juvenile incarceration. The state has in the past 20 years replaced its large juvenile training schools with small, campus-style facilities.

Among the respondents to the survey, 21 percent identified as liberal; 46 percent as moderate; and 31 percent as conservative.

Click here to read the survey results.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at