Struggling to fit in as they navigate the bewildering world of adolescence, teenagers are not always known to use the best judgment. Even “Good” kids mess up. In fact, judgment and impulse control are the last areas of the brain to fully develop. Research tells us that these areas of the brain are not fully developed until the age of 25 or older. This often leads adolescents to test boundaries and act before they think, sometimes going too far by committing criminal offenses.
The good news is that there is research on ways to best prevent a young person from starting down the “criminogenic path”. There are new effective strategies to help kids who get in trouble so that they never end up being arrested again. Even with multiple arrests, we can change the trajectory and greatly reduce the probability that they live a life of crime and incarceration. The bad news is that in Rhode Island we do few of the things that science shows us work best.
Hundreds of millions of federal research dollars have been poured into researching how to prevent and reduce juvenile arrests. Dr. Lipsey has performed a meta-analysis of over 800 controlled studies on juvenile arrest. His findings show that counseling, mentoring, and traditional Family Therapy make modest impacts on whether a kid will get arrested again.
However the right dose (2Xs/week) and duration (4 months) of a treatment known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) actually is more than twice as effective as the next best approaches, such mentoring and group counseling. Cognitive therapy helps young adults alter the way they think, act and feel by helping them to develop coping strategies in challenging situations. Doing CBT less than twice a week or for a shorter duration has little effect, but high quality CBT when provided properly has excellent lasting results. Contrary to popular belief, programs like job training for adolescents, which is very effective in reducing recidivism for adults, has a low impact for adolescents. Other more punitive approaches such as Scared Straight glamorized on TV, exposed juvenile offenders to adult prisons. This program was shown to cause juvenile offenders to become more aggressive and increase the likelihood of arrest.
Research also shows that incarcerating youth in juvenile detention facilities like the RI Training School does not work. Rhode Island has taken note; however, we could do more. We’ve seen the number of incarcerated kids drop from over 1000 in 2008 to 283 in 2018, but even that’s too many. Make no bones about it, this is a “Kid Jail” predominately staffed by guards with only a smattering of clinical and rehabilitative services. Though we must keep the public safe from offenders that may have committed serious crimes, it is also important to know that many of these youth have experienced high levels of trauma from abuse and neglect earlier in their childhood and most have a diagnosable serious emotional disorder, not just the commonly applied diagnostic label of Conduct Disorder.
Enter into this already complex situation, incarceration of the most at risk and troubled youth, and you have a toxic environment. Incarceration also has a much more profound impact on kids than adults, not only because of their underdeveloped brains, but also because incarceration leads to a discontinuity in their education, association with delinquent peers and often an increased exposure to violence. Two summers ago, a fight between gangs broke out at the R. I. Training School, which injured half a dozen and prompted guards to demand the use of pepper spray, which is still being argued by the union.
With both adolescent offenders and guards feeling more vulnerable, along with the growing body of evidence that suggests incarceration of juveniles is not the answer, why aren’t states doing away with juvenile detention systems altogether? Wisconsin has already done so, replacing many of their juvenile justice beds with smaller rehabilitation homes. Connecticut has also recently closed its training school but without fully re- investing in the more effective community based rehabilitations services. In June, San Francisco courts went even further. San Francisco will be one of the first cities to “shutter” all of its juvenile detention beds by 2021 and replace it with smaller community- based rehabilitation centers.
Central to smaller juvenile treatment centers is assuring the use of evidence-based therapies such as CBT and a structured family therapy approach called Functional Family Therapy (FFT). FFT is a family-focused intervention, which, like CBT, helps juveniles create more positive outlooks by helping to change the way they think and thus behave.
Many argue that the cost of treating juvenile offenders is too high and needs to be cost effective. In a 2017 report by Susan Young Ph.D., published in the U.S. Library of Medicine, parenting and FFT programs have sustained value and result in an 8 to 1 gross cost savings. Cities and Counties where Juvenile Justice System Reform has been implemented using modern research based approaches have closed beds, reduced juvenile arrests and saved money. We must continue to push for smaller treatment centers and shift our limited resources away from interventions that do not work and to invest in those that do.