Book Review: Burning Down the House



'Burning Down the House': An in-depth look into the world of America's juvenile justice system.

"Burning Down the House"
By Nell Bernstein
The New Press, June 3, 2014
256 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Sarah Brown

“Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” offers a raw, in-depth look into the world of America’s juvenile prison system. In this exposé, Nell Bernstein, a San Francisco journalist, takes the reader on an emotional, eye-opening journey through prison facilities riddled with abuse. Through the voices of the children behind the prison walls, she shares their heart-wrenching stories of pain and suffering, broken systems and unjust commitments.

Citing research and studies, Bernstein illustrates and concludes that incarcerating young people does not reduce future crimes and, instead, can further the trajectory of a young person’s life into delinquency and eventually adult prison. But she doesn’t stop there.

With the current shift in juvenile justice policy toward treating kids as kids and not as adults, Bernstein believes now is the time to make changes. She offers actions to remedy and reform the system, including the following:

  • Listen to young people who have been in juvenile prison.
  • Make positive relationships central to rehabilitation efforts.
  • Intervene as early as possible with at-risk youth.
  • Promote the use of community-based programs and services over juvenile prison.
  • Increase the use of small, therapeutic institutions.

Bernstein’s recommendations on how to improve the justice system are grounded in her deep knowledge and life-long experiences as an advocate for youth, both in and out of the system. In addition, recent neuroscience and behavioral and social science research on adolescent development bolster her argument that juveniles are distinct from and should be treated differently than adults.

I heard the author read excerpts from the book at a conference, and her passion and commitment for changing the juvenile justice system was palpable. Not a person in the audience left the room without a book in hand. I began reading my copy that evening and could not put it down. I highly recommend “Burning Down the House” to anyone in the juvenile justice field and to those who love and support children who may be involved with the system.

Sarah Brown is a program director in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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