Policymakers, advocates, and even some researchers claim that youth confinement rates across the United States dropped in recent years due to changes in policy and practice. Such claims remain unproven, but voters and elected officials are inclined to accept them as factual because they are offered by reputable agencies and repeated in news media sources. Without reliable evidence, however, the notion that state-level youth confinement rates fall primarily in response to progressive policy reforms is merely appealing rhetoric.
That longstanding approach was problematic at best, according to Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College. “We’re setting ourselves up for failure when we take a young person who is 14- or 15-years-old, send them hours away from their family, and break all their ties to their communities,” he says.
Nonetheless, outside experts say the program has started to show results. Residents “stay connected with their families and they are more likely to remain in local schools,” wrote Prof. Jeffrey Butts, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research and Evaluation Center, in a 44-page report on Close to Home in 2015.
“Nothing in the governor’s plan ensures that Wisconsin will have an effective approach to youth justice,” cautioned Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “Poor implementation and ineffective management can ruin the best of plans.”
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said the Wisconsin prisons’ problems come from poor management. Staff who argue they need things like pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles are saying “our culture within the facility has become so corrupted by violence we have no other options,” he said. The methods “are not necessary, they don’t work and they just lead to more violence,” said Butts, who has researched youth justice for nearly three decades.
Researchers used state-level data on youth justice policies and practices to explore the association between state policy environments and recent changes in the use of residential placements for adjudicated youth (i.e., confinement). The study assigned a score to each of the 50 states based on the extent to which their youth justice policy environments could be considered “progressive” as opposed to punitive or regressive.