New Reform: Same Old Reform

After The Doors Were LockedThe most striking conclusion I draw from CJCJ Executive Director Dan Macallair’s forthcoming book, After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of Twenty-First Century Reform, is that over the last 150 years, even the most dramatic changes in society, crime, and research seem to bring few new ideas to the antiquated assumptions driving juvenile justice policy.

Macallair meticulously details the 1800s origins of the San Francisco Industrial School, the reform school movement exemplified by the Whittier State School beginning in the late 1800s, and continuing cycles of institutional decay, resurgence, and re-decay — right up to renewed efforts to create a system for transitional-aged youth (18-25-year-olds) in 2015.

After The Doors Were Locked

Whittier State School | After the Doors Were Locked

How new is the current clamor to resurrect a failing statewide juvenile incarceration system with “therapeutic” facilities founded in the newly discovered “psychology” of youths and young adults? Very old. Exactly the same notions were championed by California’s reformers of the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and especially strongly in the 1970s, and yet again in the early 2000s. All touted their “therapeutic” plans for treating juvenile offenders in improved facilities as “new” science bringing breakthroughs in rehabilitating youth and preventing reoffending.

Reformers presented essentially the same plans over the decades for what were believed to be improved facilities and rehabilitative plans, framed in the contemporary jargon of the day. All were discredited in a few short years – victims of what Macallair terms the “15-30 year cycle,” in which demands for reform bring supposedly more modern and humane facility construction, staffing, and treatment modalities to rescue the failing system, only to fail again.

Preston School of Industry | After the Doors Were Locked

Two dismal facts accompany the recurring stasis. First, throughout the 20th century and today, the driving force in juvenile justice has been much less real trends among young people than fiscal and political needs of the system.

Youth have displayed dramatically differing crime levels and patterns over the past several decades. In California’s modern era, serious youth crime rose rapidly from 1955 to 1974 (“The Sixties” were indeed chaotic, everyone predicts in hindsight). Then, after 1975, youth crime plummeted over the next 40 years to below 1950s levels (no one predicted that). This decrease occurred as California’s youth population transitioned from 70 percent white to 70 percent nonwhite by 2014, dramatically defying alarmist predictions that the increasing population of youth of color would drive up crime.

Second, throughout turbulent societal changes, the juvenile justice establishment remained stuck to outdated prejudice that adolescents are “temporary sociopaths,” driven by internal savageries, goading peers, and always-frightening “youth culture.” According to prevailing rhetoric, the mission of the system is to train and treat its wards out of their naturally impulsive ways.

Cages at Preston | After the Doors Were Locked

This sentiment continues today in the invocation of teenage “brain science”. This “new science,” once again, locates crime within the individual, particularly the innate biology of “crime prone” populations. This, in turn, prompts calls for more police, services, and programs (as the Centers for Disease Control’s latest report on gun violencereiterates) while burying genuinely fundamental reforms such as confronting systemic poverty, disadvantage, and racism. Given those assumptions, meaningful change has proven impossible.

The “new science” underlying “modern reform” remains simply old prejudices. Worse, today’s subliminal fear toward growing youth populations of color is producing particularly retrograde simplicities from reform leaders. Crime, President Obama and other reformers tell us, is just “teenagers doing stupid things”, and that juvenile justice needs only “common sense,” not statistics and research.

But what does “common sense” mean? Amid fervent oaths to use “new brain science” to reduce crime is the strange indifference to California’s most revolutionary trend: the stunning 78 percent plummet in youthful felony rates over the last 25 years, now spreading into large declines among young adults. This plunge in youthful arrests has driven a 90 percent decline in state juvenile incarcerations, a halving in local juvenile incarcerations, the closure of eight of 11 state juvenile facilities, and a drastically changed landscape of crime.

One might expect these real, astonishingly encouraging trends to be generating excited discussion – particularly among those seeking to challenge racist and anti-immigrant fear-mongering – about what could have caused them and how they can be reinforced. One would be shocked and disappointed. “Common sense” seems to mean upholding common stereotypes while ignoring what is actually going on.

Group therapy | After the Doors Were Locked

The striking reality contradicting 165 years of California juvenile justice assumptions is not (as today’s reformers continue to insist) that adolescents are very different from adults, but how much youth are like adults. Youth with violent or drug-abusing parentsare far more likely to be violent or drug-abusing themselves. A 17-year-old and a 45-year-old at the same poverty level in the same community have about the same felony, violent crime, and homicide rates. Manufacture a difference founded in whatever “new science” rules the day (whether delivered in tones of sympathy, contempt, or adult self-flattery), and the outcome remains: the same mistakes will continue, and youth will continue to be incarcerated to no effect, and even treated worse.

That is the ultimate point I take from After the Doors Were Locked. The juvenile justice system quest for new-and-improved facilities and methods has been proven ineffectual over and over because it remain founded in the same basic assumptions. The most revolutionary reform would be to admit that justice-involved teenagers and young adults are very similar to older adults in the justice system: both languish in poverty and suffer from abuses, and both tend to become more serious criminals the longer they remain packed together in the mass, congregate prisons Macallair finds unworkable.

Mike_MalesYouths and adults alike benefit from low poverty, high employment, and healthy environments, and both require flexible, individualized treatment from the justice system. Unfortunately, without a conscious change in the goals of our justice system, true reform remains a perpetually elusive goal.

Mike Males
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

About Mike Males

Mike A. Males is a Senior Research Fellow at CJCJ. He has contributed research and co-authored numerous CJCJ publications, including on issues of drug policy, 3-strikes law, criminal justice realignment, and juvenile justice reform.

Dr. Males has a Ph.D. in Social Ecology from U.C. Irvine and over 12 years of experience working in youth programs. He is also content director of Youth Facts (www.YouthFacts.org)

Comments

  1. Luis Lozano says:

    When nothing changes nothing changes except that in this case it means things actually become worse. Our approach to juvenal rehabilitation/correction is as misguided as our approach to so-called school reform. No matter how much money we throw at the problem the problem just seems to keep getting worse. The way to deal with the “problem” in my opinion is to put the resources in the community not in the prisons. Jobs, job training, vocational training, family counseling and an improved social safety net for all. Incarceration of youth should only be as a last resort and for the most serious of offenses and never should our youth be put in for profit institutions.

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