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Do youth prisons work?

Many experts believe that youth prisons don't actually solve the problems they're supposed to solve. They don't promote reform. In many cases, kids come out worse off than when they went in.

This is why youth prisons are being closed around the country. Are they just perpetuating a system where young people get caught up in a life of crime and violence?

The issues

That's the argument, and it's spurring change. Some studies have noted that youth prisons:

  • Take children away from their families and support networks.
  • Remove children from schools and faith-based organizations.
  • Subject kids to neglect on many levels.
  • Force them to live in fear and isolation.
  • Expose kids to sexual and physical abuse.

The kids that then get out, these researchers claim, can feel traumatized by what they experienced while they were in jail. They're not reformed. They may be scarred by their experience, but not in a way that makes them change so they won't have to go back to prison, as is often the hope.

Instead, they find it very difficult to get jobs and become productive members of society. They struggle to have healthy relationships with other children and adults. Many of them do not go back to school or college and so they wind up with very little education. They're not productive, they don't feel like they can get ahead, and they're stuck.

Creating more crime

The issue is that this can create more crime. Rather than producing a reformed young person who wants to turn his or her life around, prisons are producing emotionally scarred kids who don't have the tools to succeed on the outside. Is it any surprise that many of them turn right back to crime?

What works?

The natural questions, then, is what does work? The answer is simple: community-based interventions and true rehabilitation efforts. Don't just lock children up. Try to get to the root of the issue. Why are they getting arrested? What type of help and guidance do they actually need? What can authorities do to help a child without giving him or her a criminal record that lasts for life?

This approach is similar to that used by drug courts. They recognize that a lot of drug offenders battle addictions. They need treatment, not jail time. The drug court program gives them that treatment in a controlled setting so they can kick addictions and reduce crime at the same time.

The options

Parents whose children have been arrested are likely frightened and concerned. They just want what is best for their kids. That often does not mean prison time. It's important for parents to know all of their legal rights and the options they have.

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