New reports from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Justice Policy Institute reveal that between 1997 and 2010, Tennessee led the nation in reducing the number of youths incarcerated. This reflects important new directions for juvenile justice over the years. At the same time, it raises questions about procedures, recidivism, supervision and funding of community-based programs designed to rehabilitate young offenders.
In the time period covered by the studies, Tennessee’s youth incarceration rate dropped 66 percent, compared to the national rate decline of 37 percent. The change in Tennessee meant youth incarceration went from 2,100 to 800 over the time period. It is reasonable to ask how this was accomplished, and more important, whether youth crime was down. Those are especially important questions when you consider that the number of youth arrests in Tennessee increased by 11 percent, compared to a nationwide decrease of 27 percent.
It is important to understand that the primary objective of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate young offenders, not merely to punish them for breaking the law. That is a significantly different objective than what drives the adult justice system. A youth saved from a life of crime thanks to rehabilitation means a life saved and a productive citizen added to the national rolls. The two studies did reaffirm that the most serious youth offenders are being jailed.
Saving young offenders from lives of crime through rehabilitation requires community-based programs to help redirect their behavior, guide them into productive activities and monitor their progress. Of course, the first place to start is with the family and the role of parents and guardians. But even those efforts deserve reinforcement. Parents of troubled youth often are at a loss for what to do. Every parent wants their child to succeed. Knowing what to do when things go awry can be uncharted waters for family, and for the youth involved.
Recent years have seen funding for community-based programs reduced or at risk. Local efforts to help youth can’t operate without the people and the funds needed to implement intervention and crime prevention programs. Volunteers and mentors are important, but so is professional supervision, treatment for behavior problems, substance abuse rehabilitation and even help with school performance. What we know about youth crime is that we can pay now to help young people get on and stay on the right track, or we can pay later with prison costs, lost productive citizens and the negative impact of crime on communities.
Tennessee’s progress in lowering juvenile incarceration is commendable. But to sustain these efforts, the state and local communities must ensure sustainable programs are in place to step in to the lives of young people and families when they are needed.