Back to News & Commentary

The "Show Me" State Shows the Nation on Juvenile Justice

Elizabeth Alexander,
Elizabeth Alexander, National Prison Project
Share This Page
November 19, 2009

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights. The convention has been ratified by nearly every country in the world, except for the United States. The convention would fill current gaps in U.S. laws, and provide all children in America with the same robust protections that children in 193 countries are already entitled to.

During this week in which we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), it is important to give some thought to those of our children who most need the protection of the convention. Under the convention, children may not be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In addition, children who have violated the law must be treated in a manner consistent with the child’s dignity that takes into account “the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.” Under the CRC, “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child … shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Unfortunately, ill-considered social policies too often result in children committed to juvenile facilities in this country not receiving the treatment they need. A number of studies have shown that children who are locked up are more likely to commit future criminal acts than children who are kept in the community. Given that the United States now locks up 93,000 kids in juvenile facilities across the country at a cost of $5.7 billion each year, we need a better way.

That better way has to involve a massive reduction in the number of children that we lock up. For those who are confined in juvenile facilities, the “Missouri model” points the way. In contrast to traditional juvenile facilities, in Missouri’s system children live in cottage-style dormitories that hold 10 to 15 children. Two facilitators work with the children in a well-thought-out program that focuses on personal change to allow youth to turn their lives around, in a safe and humane environment. The youth receive educational services and job training, but also help with social and emotional functioning. Each kid has an advocate assigned to them who assists with the process of reintegrating the child back into his or her community. The results are a dramatic improvement from traditional juvenile confinement, as fewer than 10 percent of youth released from the program are found to have committed a new crime within three years of release.

The ACLU’s National Prison Project is involved in two cases in which our litigation is pushing for system-wide juvenile reform. In the District of Columbia, we filed a motion asking the court to appoint a receiver to overhaul the totally dysfunctional Youth Services Agency. Ultimately, D.C. responded by appointing Vincent Schiraldi, a real reformer, as head of the agency. Schiraldi has completely reorganized the agency — now called the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services — and is replicating the “Missouri Model” in D.C. As a result, a new state-the-art facility for committed children opened in May 2009, and the population of committed children has fallen dramatically. Similarly, in Rhode Island, our litigation has led to new facilities and a new philosophy that has cut the number of youth committed to the juvenile system and substituted positive programs for the old practice of placing kids who break facility rules in isolation.

Finally, under the CRC, no “life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” Whether such sentences impose cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is now under consideration by the Supreme Court. While we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will strike down these sentences, it remains important to fight them in those states that still allow this practice until it is ruled unconstitutional.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page