As a spate of car thefts captures the news, there are calls to extend the time that the state keeps kids in detention. Incarcerating children is a common knee-jerk reaction to youth crime – though we know for a fact that locking kids up generally makes their behavior worse, subjects them to potential physical and mental health risk, and sharply reduces the chances that they will get a high school diploma. This strategy also ignores the fact that car thefts have been steadily declining in the state for years, despite the bump we’ve seen recently. Bad policy is often based on anecdotes rather than extensive data.
That’s what happened in the 1990s. A toxic blend of sensationalism and racism steered policy toward a sharply punitive approach to crime, particularly to youth. The now exonerated Central Park Five encapsulate the mistakes of the era. Nationally and in Connecticut, reformers spent the 2000s correcting those errors. It was my honor to work advising many advocacy campaigns to close youth prisons, increase diversion from the system, and ban arrests of very young children. These were your victories too, no matter who you are, because they were followed by reduced crime and cost savings for taxpayers.
It turns out that throwing the book at a kid is likely to make things worse, encourage more crime and dysfunction, and be extremely expensive.
More importantly, kids who run afoul of the law are still kids — precious and full of potential. They deserve a second chance. “A second chance,” by the way, is a phrase I discourage clients from using. It does not test well. On bad days, that fact alone can make me despair of the human race.
Instead, I advise people to talk about the poor outcomes that come along with treating youth harshly and the high cost of incarceration. Nationally, incarcerating young people has a higher recidivism rate than redirecting them to community-based programs. In Connecticut, the Department of Children and Families never even publicly shared the recidivism rate for the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. But once the annual cost per child got way into the six-figures and videos showed kids being assaulted by staff, we were finally able to get it closed.
So why the enduring enthusiasm for putting children in cages? People have deep feelings about responsibility. No essay promoting juvenile system reform would be complete without kneeling before the altar of responsibility – or as folks in the field like to call it, accountability. “We can hold youth accountable in their own communities.” That’s true. Community-based programs, in fact, may be more restrictive and longer lasting than incarceration is. (I don’t consider that a plus, but the public often does, so we keep saying it.)
None of this is to diminish auto theft. That’s a serious, and as we’ve tragically seen, dangerous offense. If, as a teenager, my son had taken my car without permission, I would have read him the riot act. I would have punished him, though because I care about his future, I would not have involved the law. I would have had painful heart-to-hearts with him to determine what moved him to do such a reckless thing.
Immediately I would have made sure my keys were someplace where he could not get them. Any responsible parent would do the same. If a second joyride occurred, my friends would have asked, “Why didn’t you hide the keys?” Why, indeed?
If I know that my car is in danger of being stolen, it is responsible to lock it. If the public is concerned about car thefts, each of us has it within our power to stop them, literally by pressing a button.
The alternative is that our legislators spend time debating the matter, rather than tending to problems that don’t have obvious solutions. We talk about spending state money to impose penalties on children which we know are counterproductive and prohibitively expensive.
This is odd behavior in a state where people frequently threaten to leave because of the tax burden, where people decry “big government” when it’s running the kinds of programs that might actually help the young people in question.
Your car comes with a lock. Use it.
And if you won’t, then please explain to me why you think your choice should burden your fellow taxpayers, law enforcement, and most of all kids, who – focus groups be damned – deserve a second chance.
Colleen Shaddox of East Haddam is co-author with Joanne Samuel Goldblum of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty.