An effective juvenile justice system holds young people accountable for their actions in age-appropriate ways that best promote community safety. Our children and citizens are entitled to a system that will offer the best return on investment, by providing the right package of accountability and supports to change anti-social behaviors. A pragmatic approach to juvenile justice invests in evidence-based programs and services and eschews costly practices that are unsupported by research. One such practice is an overreliance on incarceration: the costliest option on the justice spectrum, in both economic and rehabilitative terms. While a small percentage of youth may exhibit such dangerous behavior that they require immediate confinement, decades of research tells us that juvenile incarceration is costly and ineffective in most cases.
Every year, Nebraska’s courts send a number of serious and not-so-serious juvenile offenders to the Youth Residential Treatment Centers (YRTCs) in Kearney and Geneva. Like all placements and services ordered under Nebraska’s juvenile code, the goal in placing youth at these institutions should be their rehabilitation. Both YRTCs’ missions are consistent with this goal; they aim to provide services and supports to young people so that they can go on to live productive and law-abiding lives. However, as with many other juvenile services across the United States, promises of quality services and rehabilitation are not always fulfilled.
With this week being the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth we thought we should investigate what the youth incarceration population in Nebraska looks like.
Evidence is mounting nationally and in Nebraska that the YRTC model and other large juvenile corrections institutions simply do not work, and in fact, evidence shows that punitive correctional models do more harm than good for youth. The YRTCs have been described as: “dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful, and inadequate.” With over $17 million a year spent on our Youth Residential Treatment Centers, we believe Nebraska’s youth and the taxpaying community would be better served by reforming the YRTCs as part of a statewide network of small, regional facilities with lower staff/ child ratio and therapeutic environments. The ultimate question is whether the YRTCs are a sound investment in Nebraska’s youth. Do they improve outcomes for the children in their care? Do they increase public safety by effectively responding to the high needs of their clients? If so, they need to be able to meaningfully demonstrate their successes. If not, it is time for Nebraska to find a different way to invest this extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars.