After Two Decades of Fighting Youth Incarceration, Has Casey's Moment Arrived?

One of the saddest facts we know about youth incarceration is that starting out young and in prison often results in repeated visits to the big house. If you stay out of prison and you have a clean background record when you enter the workforce, your prospects for the long-term are much better.

"Dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful, and inadequate," is how the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2011 report, No Place for Kids, describes the negative results of locking up youth. Once kids end up in jail, social workers do what they can to help them get out and start over on the right foot, but a better plan starts with keeping kids out of the slammer in the first place.

Through the Annie E. Casey's Juvenile Justice Initiative, programs for reducing youth incarceration are getting support across the country, including in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In Connecticut, lawyers from the Center for Children's Law and Policy have been working with police and school departments in four different cities to develop a plan to avoid arresting youth except for the most extreme cases, in which an arrest is "absolutely warranted."

Research suggests these kids are better served in community-based programs that will get them focused on educational goals and social engagement and help keep them out of trouble. Along with talking to police and school departments, the Center for Children's Law and Policy is also talking to legislators, and submitted legislation this past year that would promote less incarceration. That legislation didn't garner enough support, but advocates are planning to reintroduce it in the coming year.

This is a ripe moment to push harder against practices that put kids in jail. With public fears of crime way down, and fiscal pressures on states way up, the tide has been turning against harsh criminal justice policies and drug laws, with several states recently legalizing marijuana. 

Casey isn't the only foundation that's been working to change how children are treated by law enforcement agencies. Atlantic Philanthropies has spent millions of dollars in recent years to fight zero-tolerance school discipline policies that feed a "schools-to-prison pipeline." The negative effects of punitive law enforcement policies on young men of color have also received lots of attention in the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which many funders are involved in. 

This work has paid dividends. Everywhere, there are signs of changing policies, and in particular a notable move away from zero-tolerance practices. 

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But Casey was working this beat long before a lot of those other funders came along. It has been investing in reducing youth imprisonment for over two decades. The foundation created the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in the early 1990s, a nationwide network of 300 programs that work to reduce youth incarceration.

When Casey launched JDAI, kids were being incarcerated at alarming rates. Using a model with core principles and strategies, the initiative has made great strides in reducing youth incarceration since then. As of 2012, 38 JDAI sites had reduced their average daily populations in detention by 50 percent or more, compared to their detention rates before they enacted the JDAI program. Because of its success, JDAI has been adopted nationally, leading to dramatic declines in youth detention.

In Massachusetts, JDAI is even farther ahead of the game than the rest of the country, helping to enact changes in legislation and court procedures for youth. The state's exiting governor, Deval Patrick, signed legislation in September raising the age of Juvenile Court jurisdiction from 17 to 18. That was a smart move, and one that was publicly appreciated by the parents of the children removed from the adult system. Right there, a lot of kids were saved from the permanent records that deter future employment.

Also on the cutting edge of mind-shift in this arena, the courts in Massachusetts are no longer holding children in custody for up to 30 days for "diagnostic testing." Now only children who are considered a flight risk are held in custody.

A lot more kids would be stuck in the cycle of incarceration if it weren't for the Casey Foundation. And herein lie important lessons for other funders: If you want to have impact, pick a serious but overlooked problem, get in early and ahead of the curve, develop strategies that work, and then hang in for the long haul until the winds of change finally blow your way.