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Jason Ziedenberg Comments on Juvenile Detention following Incident in Tennessee

Responding to the recent escape of 32 teens from Tennessee's Woodland Hills Detention Center, JPI's Director of Policy & Research, Jason Ziedenberg, comments on the broader juvenile justice landscape in an interview with Nashville Public Radio. Below is an excerpt from the article, including Jason's remarks.

Taking Cues From Missouri

It’s something author Nell Bernstein has seen across the country. She recently published the book “Burning Down the House,” an in-depth look at youth incarceration.

Bernstein argues that teen delinquency is basically a developmental phase, and that kids who do get locked up tend to escalate once they’re released. In fact, she says, teens are twice as likely to end up in adult prison once they’ve been admitted into a juvenile detention facility, like Woodland Hills. “It’s a self-defeating cycle we have going on,” says Bernstein.

Nationwide, there’s been a 40 percent drop in teen incarceration, something that’s attributed to youth advocacy, scandals and a series of federal investigations. But also, Bernstein notes, the major decline came during a time of state budgetary crises. States were finding that other ways to deal with teen criminals — therapy programs and home-stay programs — were more affordable than bulking up teen populations in jail-like settings.

Bernstein, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other advocates point to Missouri as an exemplary model. There, troubled youth are placed in small residential centers that feel more like summer camp than jail. Instead of cells, they sleep in shared dorms. Officials respond to unruly behavior with group therapy, instead of solitary confinement. And the results have been impressive. According to Missouri officials, violence is lower and the kids rarely end up back in the system once they’re released.

Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute says places like New York, Washington, DC., and California have all adopted aspects of the Missouri Model for dealing with troubled teens.

“As the cost of confinement rose, it became pretty hard to justify why would we be needlessly sticking these kids in these places if it’s this expensive and we’re getting these outcomes.”

Tennessee officials say they are considering it, too. DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, at the urging of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, visited a facility for kids on the cusp of adult prison in Missouri and returned to Nashville feeling inspired by the softer approach.

But he says it’s impossible to dramatically reform Tennessee’s system overnight. In fact, the immediate response has been the exact opposite: shoring up security.

A longer version of this piece was originally posted by Nashville Public Radio.

Posted in JPI in the News

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