Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

No Child is Disposable

Michael Gerson & Stephanie Summers


The following is an excerpt from CPJ’s newly released book Unleashing Opportunity.


Part I - No Child Is Disposable

The influential prison reformer Chuck Colson often employed a vivid image. Many people, he said, view the prison system like they view the sewage system. They want to flush problems away without thinking about where they go.

This was the attitude, consciously or subconsciously, behind the growth of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. Prisons were built and filled, but remained largely hidden from view. By 2006, roughly one out of every 32 Americans was held in the justice system. It is important to note the racial disparities that existed -- and still do today -- as one in every 15 black males is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white males. This approach and the corresponding disparity extends to youth offenders as well. Few Americans have contact with this system except corrections officials and those involved in prison ministry.

New York’s Rikers Island correctional facility is a tragic example of how we seek to isolate crime and criminals. It is located in the middle of the East River, reachable only by a single unmarked bridge. Along with thousands of adult prisoners, nearly 800 juvenile offenders are also housed. A 2014 report by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York revealed a “broken institution” where violence is commonplace, solitary confinement is routine, and about half of the youth population is diagnosed with mental health issues.

Past attempts to move juvenile offenders off Rikers Island to smaller facilities elsewhere have been blocked. Communities simply don’t take them. Nobody seems to want them. And this seems to be a trend.

Nationwide, about 12 percent of delinquent youth are placed in prisons because they have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and assault. But many others are incarcerated for violating parole, or showing disrespect toward judges, probation officers and other officials. By some estimates, about 40 percent of incarcerated juveniles committed nonviolent offenses such as violations of probation, drug possession and public order offenses. And some young people with mental health conditions are dumped in facilities because there are no other treatment options.

A perverse incentive structure is also sometimes at work. When a court orders drug treatment or mental health services for a juvenile, a locality (a city or county) is generally required to pay for those services. When a juvenile is incarcerated, the state usually foots the bill. For many localities, locked facilities are the cheaper option. For states, however, incarceration is expensive – often costing more than $200,000 a year per inmate.

A variety of studies have found that 70 to 80 percent of incarcerated youth are rearrested within a year. And there are predicable, negative results on education and employment. By one estimate, 66 percent of juveniles who are incarcerated never return to school, which dramatically undermines their prospects in the labor market. And all of these bad results are achieved at an absurdly high cost – often 10 times the expense of sending a child to a good state university.

However a growing body of data is revealing what works in reducing juvenile recidivism, or rate of re-offense, and what doesn’t.

What works often involves non-custodial based sentences that include weekly visits from counselors who work with the offender and their caregivers to confront specific risk factors like a lack of supervision, poor academic skills, and a lack of impulse control. In extreme cases of family dysfunction, a child may be placed for six months in a specially trained foster home while caregivers are given intensive training in parenting skills.    

This type of family intervention does not always work, of course. But studies have shown reductions in recidivism of about 20 percent.  And there is a reason for this success. These programs attempt to strengthen the social institution that is designed to give guidance to youth – the family – instead of trying to replace it with prison guards and parole officers (very poor substitutes).

This is a case study in the principle that justice is multi-dimensional -- it requires the involvement of multiple institutions including government, family, churches, and non-profits. Government is often most effective when it works to strengthen other social institutions instead of always acting directly. It is true to say: “Children need strong families that surround them with love and rules.” But it is not sufficient. Many children lack this advantage. And it is not enough to complain about social conditions. Government needs to act – but it should first try to act in ways that strengthen families, rather than ignoring or replacing them. For example, family support programs are one way to accomplish this goal.

In many ways, Missouri has become the hopeful exemplar of reform (similar efforts are often said to be following “the Missouri model”). None of its confinement facilities hold more than 50 juveniles. Each youth is assigned a single case officer through the justice process who works closely with families on the issues surrounding reentry. Recidivism rates are low.

Juvenile justice reform is a success story, if still an incomplete one. The lives and struggles of young people can’t simply be hidden behind walls and razor wire – flushed away to places we never see. No child is disposable. It is necessary to restrict certain risks to society – but also to leave room for second chances.

Part II - The Power of Restoration

If you’re under 18, the color of your skin or the income of your parents may make the difference between the police dropping you off at home or you getting locked up for committing a nonviolent crime. For youth who commit crimes, the juvenile justice system in the United States disproportionately sentences youth from low-income communities of color to confinement, meaning that more often community-based alternative sentences are of primary consideration for white youth offenders.

Disparity in sentencing along racial and socioeconomic lines is one symptom among many pointing to the need for broad reforms to the juvenile justice system. When it comes to juvenile justice, government upholding public justice for a political community must include two dimensions of justice. The first is retributive justice – the way a government punishes offenses. The second is restorative justice. This requires laws that recognize the role that other institutions play in restoring juvenile offenders to their communities, and is the means by which a political community seeks restitution and reconciliation.

In a rightly ordered juvenile justice system, sentencing should be aligned to administer more than retributive justice. One hallmark of such a system should be that in the case of every adolescent, the goal is to ensure both retributive and restorative justice.

Reorienting the juvenile justice system in the United States to lead to human flourishing will require dramatic changes on the part of both government as well as a host of community-based institutions. This begins with citizens calling government officials to fulfill their high calling to promote public justice. Government’s calling to promote public justice takes crime seriously – as a baseline, it includes protecting citizens from domestic injustice. It is government’s job to ensure public order and public safety and to enforce the consequences of the perpetration of criminal acts against others. 

But in the case of our existing juvenile justice system, government isn’t taking its public justice responsibilities seriously enough. Government fulfilling its high calling to uphold public justice also requires that it do more than is currently being done to make possible the range of sentences that best respect victims, ensure public safety, and lead to the full restoration of juvenile offenders.

Faith-based organizations such as Justice Fellowship make exactly this point, suggesting that the existing criminal justice system should shift to be based on a set of four interrelated restorative justice principles. Their restorative justice model “transitions the government from playing the victim of crime to being an administrator of justice; prioritizes and respects victims by providing assistance, validation, restitution, information, protection, and participation; compels offenders to make up for their harms; and advocates for appropriate punishment by providing for a just process, proportional punishment, a chance to make amends, a constructive culture, opportunities to earn trust, and closure; and enables communities to facilitate justice through education, acceptance, supporting victims, civic participation, and fostering safety.”

One application of these principles is the administration and strengthening of community-based sentences. For every adolescent whose therapeutic treatment does not require confinement in order to be effectively administered, the young person should be the recipient of a sentence designed to keep them in their communities. This of course requires the addition of intensive relational and treatment support from the full host of institutions that are necessary to ensure restorative justice. A community-based sentence not only gives a young person the best likelihood of ceasing their criminal activities going forward, but provides the best foundation for human flourishing.

We cannot be naïve about what this will require. When it comes to sentencing for juveniles, especially those from low-income families and communities of color, citizens and government must recognize, strengthen, and promote the work of a diversity of community institutions as essential if youth offenders are to know and understand what it means to be fully restored. We must support the work of the Church as it walks alongside youth offenders, victims, and their families with a message that articulates but does not coerce repentance, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. As leaders in education, we must work to shape our institutions and collaborate with others in order to provide the additional support that youth offenders will need as they are learning how to persevere and persist to complete their education. As leaders in business and nonprofit sectors, we must provide viable pathways for youth employment, helping them to use their God-given gifts and talents to contribute to the well-being of others.

As Christians, we understand the power of justice that restores. The hope and healing that Jesus brings to the whole world isn’t only about us being restored to right relationship with God. It is also about us being restored to right relationship with one another, and the restoration of the very structures of society.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What assumptions did you have about juvenile justice before reading this excerpt, and how might those assumptions have changed?
  • Why are both retributive justice and restorative justice essential to upholding public justice and supporting human flourishing?
  • How can the Church engage in various dimensions of restorative justice? What role do you think your particular church and community might play in walking alongside youth offenders? 

To read more on this topic and explore the other four issues (early childhood, the foster care to sex trafficking pipeline, the graduation gap and predatory payday lending) in the book, check out Unleashing Opportunity.

- Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist appearing in The Washington Post. Stephanie Summers is the CEO of The Center for Public Justice.  

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”