Alternatives to Incarceration and Juvenile Detention Reform


Alternatives to Incarceration

The National Institute of Justice, in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management has released  “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model”.  The report by Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi and Miriam Shark contains recommendations for policymakers to take a bipartisan approach to replace the nation’s reliance on youth prisons. 

The report highlights that America’s current approach to youth incarceration is costly, ineffective and can seriously harm young people. It documents recent research in developmental psychology and argues that states and localities should adopt a different approach that protects public safety and is more informed by evidence of what works.

The authors conclude that the current youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and, for the youth who require secure confinement, smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation.

Co-author Vincent Schiraldi, senior research fellow directing the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, made the case for reorienting the justice system by taking four action steps that he dubbed the “4Rs”: reduce, reform, replace and reinvest. The report features several states, including Virginia, Texas, California, Ohio and Missouri, that have used the “4R’s” to demonstrate that community-based approaches can reduce recidivism, control costs and promote public safety.

Patrick MacCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E Casey Foundation, and one of the authors of the report was interviewed about closing youth prisons in August 2016 when he was a featured speaker at NCSL’s Legislative Summit. 

Juvenile Detention Reform

A growing number of states are re-examining and amending juvenile detention policies to reduce unnecessary reliance on secure confinement.

Detention that follows arrest of a young person and pending disposition of the case has not only been shown to have negative consequences for some youths, it often is costly and unwarranted for public safety. 

While some young people require detention, reforms have aimed to avoid detention at the outset for others; shorten the length of time a juvenile remains in a detention setting; provide alternatives to detention; implement community-based supervision, reduce disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system and improve conditions of confinement.

State actions are both requiring use of risk assessments to guide detention decision-making, and providing courts with options other than detention or sending a juvenile home. Alternatives include supervised release programs, such as home detention, electronic monitoring, day and evening reporting centers, and local treatment programs. Risk assessment instruments used at detention screenings analyze a young person’s level of risk and individual treatment needs, and guide decisions about detention, supervision and services. 

States including include Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York, have enacted measures that address risk assessment and detention alternatives and services. These and other state policies and practices are helping to bring to scale local efforts that help interrupt pathways that youths otherwise may follow into delinquency.

A 2015 NCSL briefing paper Legislative Reforms in Juvenile Detention and the Juvenile Justice System provides more information on these efforts.

Additional Resources

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