Today, the Democracy Policy Network has released our Youth Decarceration policy kit, an open resource for legislators, staffers, activists, researchers, and journalists to learn how states can raise the age of incarceration and promote restorative justice alternatives for young people.
Despite scientific research indicating that young people’s brains exhibit underdeveloped judgment and decision-making skills, children responsible for crimes are routinely treated as adults in the American criminal legal systems. As a result, many children experience harsh sentencing and incarceration in adult facilities. Even in youth facilities, extremely damaging practices are commonplace, as children experience solitary confinement, dehumanizing physical restraints, and strip searches. Moreover, these facilities impede the educational and social development of children, both of which are crucial to individual rehabilitation and community healing. This harsh and counterproductive treatment of children responsible for crimes creates cycles of recidivism, which particularly affect low-income communities and reinforce racial inequality.
However, there is a movement in the states towards decarceration and restorative justice, which works to reverse these cycles of recidivism and support the development of children who have committed crimes. First, this movement aims to raise the age of various aspects of incarceration: the age you can be prosecuted in adult court, the age you can be prosecuted in juvenile court, the age in which you can receive certain sentences, and the age you can be prosecuted at all. Second, this movement aims to respond to youth crime in a restorative way—a way that centers the experiences of people affected by a crime, and has the person responsible held truly accountable for their actions by reaching an agreement for them to work to repair the harm they have caused. These practices ideally allow the young person who committed the crime to continue living at home and attending school.
Restorative practices are already taking hold in multiple communities in the United States and around the world. New Zealand, for example, is a global leader in incorporating restorative practices into its legal systems. After a crime is committed, responsible and affected parties can choose to participate in restorative counseling which usually results in a community-building service project for the person responsible. Similar programs are also in place in various American schools, particularly in Denver and Oakland. In terms of restorative justice in state legal systems, we can also look to major reforms that have taken place in DC, New York, and Colorado that decrease incarceration and aim to promote young people’s development. By looking to pioneering states and nations, we can take steps towards a legal system that supports the educational, social, and civic development of young people, and combats recidivism and racial inequality.
If you are a legislator, activist, expert, or journalist looking to help promote youth decarceration in your state, check out (and share) our kit — and please reach out!