Congressional panel debates federal role in preventing youth incarceration
An empty prison cell. Getty Images.
WASHINGTON — Members of a U.S. House Education and Labor Committee panel on Thursday questioned experts and leaders of youth rehabilitation programs about how the federal government could invest in programs to prevent kids from becoming incarcerated.
“Although the juvenile justice system is intended to rehabilitate—not punish—young offenders, data shows that the more a young person interacts with the juvenile justice system, the more likely they are to reenter the system and struggle throughout life,” the panel’s chair, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, said in her opening statement.
Republicans on the panel, the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee, argued that state and local organizations are the best equipped to prevent young people from being incarcerated—not the federal government.
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho, said in his opening statement that state and local leaders “must do a better job utilizing public-private partnerships, local educators, social workers, faith based providers and community leaders” to reduce the number of youths involved in the criminal justice system.
He argued that those programs should be leading that effort, “not Washington bureaucrats.”
One of the witnesses, Stephanie Hawkins of North Carolina, said lawmakers could prevent violence by ensuring stable housing for kids to create a safety net. She said research has shown that access to safe and healthy housing “is a wise investment in juvenile justice prevention.”
Hawkins is the vice president and founding director of the Transformative Research Unit for Equity at RTI International, an independent, “nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition.” She has also led national research studies about girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system, as well as about boys and men of color and their experiences with community violence, among other topics.
She said that lawmakers should “think about all of the other supports that are needed in terms of vocational education, public services that are secure and working well.”
“So those are some of the ways that the structural components really need to work together to really create those opportunities for young people,” Hawkins said.
Boys Town focuses on intervention
Another witness, Father Steven Boes, the executive director of Nebraska’s Boys Town, said his organization focuses on research-based approaches to “intervene before problems reach a level where anyone is unsafe and maximize student success by reducing disruptive behaviors and creating a healthy school culture.”
Boes said the program has a multi-tiered intervention strategy that involves a social skills curriculum for students to help them to make better decisions. It includes School Teams, a “referral process that values teaching over punishing,” and Students, Schools, Families, Faith, and Community Partners, a proactive, faith-based approach to managing behavior in children.
Boes has been a strong proponent of rehabilitation. In a 2019 opinion piece published in USA Today, Boes wrote that the state of Wisconsin was wrong to charge a 10-year-old girl as an adult in the death of an infant.
“These are horribly tragic events, but our government systems should not compound that tragedy by throwing a child in need of rehabilitation into an adult system that is often focused only on punishment,” he wrote.
Fulcher asked Boes how he uses a faith-based approach in his prevention work to stay within the guidelines of the law.
Boes said that although he is a Catholic priest, Boys Town itself is multi-denominational, “so we support kids in whatever religious faith they have, and even no faith at all.”
Boes added that a big factor in the success of a program is the participation of schools, and administrators.
“Their commitment of resources, staff development time and ongoing consultation is what makes it work,” he said. “So principals who show up physically for the training and make it a school priority are the ones who lift together are the most successful, but parental leadership is just as important.”
‘Family values’ breakdown blamed
One Republican, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who is also the top GOP lawmaker on the full committee, said the root cause of children ending up in detention centers is single mothers and the breakdown of “family values.”
“The real problem is how many children are being born to single mothers and if you’re talking about a structure that’s needed for children, the best structure in the world is a two-parent family,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever found anything to replace that.”
Bonamici said that the most effective ways to keep children out of the juvenile system are prevention and intervention, and she raised concerns that primarily Black, brown and LGBTQ+ children have high rates of incarceration.
One of the witnesses, Naomi Smoot Evans, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said that while “we as a society have clung to the belief that incarceration results in community safety and reduces crime,” research has shown that there is little correlation between “increasing prison populations and reducing crimes in communities.”
The Coalition for Juvenile Justice is based in Washington, D.C., and is a nationwide effort to prevent youths from becoming involved in the criminal court system.
Evans pointed to several programs that are proven to work that Congress should continue to fully fund, such as Title II of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which she said the House is set to increase in fiscal 2023 by $5 million from its current $70 million. The program provides after-school programs for kids to have access to mentoring and tutoring, among other educational services.
She added that another program that was once robust and needs to be fully funded is the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program, which provided nearly $250 million for intervention programs, but now is defunded.
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