Thursday, November 12, 2009

Teen rehabilitation: The bleak "status" update

Most teens know what a status update is (think Facebook or Twitter), but what constitutes a status offense?

A status offense is an act that is unlawful for juveniles, though it would be legal for adults. Common status offenses include running away from home, truancy, and alcohol possession by minors. Regulating these behaviors in children is regarded as a way of preventing future crime. Unfortunately, the juvenile justice system often produces repeat offenders, since its focus is not solely rehabilitative.

Though federal guidelines discourage the incarceration of status offenders (hoping, instead, to focus on community-based programming), between five and six percent of juveniles currently serving time are locked up due to status offenses. What’s worse, young people who are chronically truant can be confined with juveniles incarcerated for serious violent crime. Rehabilitative forms of justice should be available for everyone; it is clear, however, that the needs of teens with truancy issues are very different from the needs of juveniles convicted of sexual assault or murder.

Status offenders should be placed in residential rehabilitation programs, not detention centers.
Teens with substance abuse issues need treatment facilities with regular access to counseling, education, and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Those who are truant or runaways need a social worker or child advocate that can provide ongoing access to counseling and alternatives to school or home that will benefit both the child and the community.

Juveniles require follow-up support.
It’s not enough to ensure that a child goes through treatment. Juvenile offenders require follow-up support including ongoing access to counseling and a court-appointed adult serving as an advisor and case manager after the teen has been released from treatment. Without this level of support, juveniles are likely to offend again.

Treatment options and follow-up support must include families.
The Policymaker’s Guide to Effective Juvenile Justice Programs illustrates the link between ineffective parenting and juvenile crime. By educating family members and involving them in treatment plans, juvenile justice professionals are helping family members “buy in” to the treatment plan. If a parent isn’t willing or able to participate, someone else — a relative, teacher, or other trusted adult — should step in to support the juvenile.

Juveniles who make mistakes need coaching and support, not punishment. By putting children through appropriate treatment instead of locking them away in detention centers, we are investing in the future of our communities. Each dollar spent on prevention and rehabilitation saves money further down the road. Status offenders who are given help to overcome the obstacles in their lives are unlikely to become repeat offenders who enter the adult justice system, saving thousands of dollars that would be spent on adult courts, incarceration, and parole.

Only when we as much about status offenses as we do status updates, will we be able to enact change. Wouldn’t you rather your tax dollars went to rehabilitating youth than paying to house adult inmates? If officials are truly concerned about the cost of the justice system they should invest in rehabilitative programming that has a proven return on investment, instead of sticking to the status quo.

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