Lessons from "Kids for Cash," Part 10: The United States Leads the World in Incarceration of Juveniles

Juvenile Law Center,

This is the tenth blog post in our Lessons from "Kids for Cash" blog series, which explores some of the critical issues facing youth today that were brought to light by the "kids-for-cash" scandal and are depicted in the new film "Kids for Cash." "Kids for Cash" is currently playing in theaters across the country.

The Luzerne County "kids-for-cash" case has been called the “most egregious judicial scandal in U.S. history.” But not for the reasons most people think. The judges accepted $2.8 million in “finder’s fees” from the builder of the new for-profit detention center, and most Americans found that fact both shocking and repugnant. Yet something far worse was exposed in the shadows of the kids-for-cash story: America’s love affair with incarceration. 

With an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 people, the United States is the most punitive country in the world. Our nation represents just 5 percent of the world’s population, but we house about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. 

The U.S. punishes children more harshly than any other country in the world. In some states, children as young as seven can be arrested and prosecuted for delinquent conduct.

It’s no surprise, then, that the U.S. also punishes children more harshly than any other country in the world. In some states, children as young as seven can be arrested and prosecuted for delinquent conduct. Kids who misbehave in school or make bad choices—like getting into a fight or making fun of a school official—can be arrested, removed from their homes, and incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities

Why do these injustices continue to happen? One explanation is a fundamental lack of understanding about adolescent development. Very few of us behave the same way we did as teens, and for good reason. Our brains—especially the frontal lobe, where logic, reason, and impulse control are processed—are still developing. The human brain continues to develop well into the early twenties when there are steep declines in impulsive and criminal behaviors—not because we’ve “taught them a lesson,” but because most teens simply outgrow the behavior as their brains mature.

For most kids, incarceration has no positive effect—only negative effects, including trauma, a feeling of being disconnected from family, friends and support systems, and academic failure. Incarceration can thwart normal, positive developmental trajectories. Some studies suggest that doing nothing would be much more effective than incarcerating youth, and that redirecting the billions of dollars in funding toward better education would be a greater investment of taxpayer dollars.

But that doesn’t make for very good campaign speeches, which leads us to another major contributor to America’s obsession with incarceration: Politics. How many times have we heard, “I’m going to get tough on crime!?” Or “I will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law!” We all bear some responsibility here. We need to pay closer attention to what our elected officials are doing and educate them. We also need to be more discerning with our votes and choose more wisely.

If our domestic policies seem flawed, let’s consider for a moment our international reputation. The United States is the only nation in the world—aside from Somalia—that has refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Convention, adopted in 1989, is an international human rights treaty that defines children’s rights.

Critically, the Convention includes strict standards for how to treat youth in the justice system. The Convention states that “imprisonment of a child … shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” It encourages nations to put into place diversion practices that connect kids who have committed crimes with developmentally appropriate programs and services in their communities, rather than pushing them into the justice system. While many communities around the country have successfully put into place diversion practices like youth courts and evening reporting centers (like this one in Cook County, IL), we must do better to make diversion for youth the first solution, rather than the alternative. The United States has a very long way to go to meet international norms.

How Can the United States Reduce Incarceration Rates and Improve Outcomes for Youth?

1. Direct more resources and funding toward educating—not incarcerating—children. As we discussed in previous blogs, our nation spends an average of $88,000/year for every child in a juvenile facility, while we spent just $10,600/year for every child in a public school. Our priorities are severely skewed; imagine what might happen if the U.S. allotted the same amount of funding for  K-12 and higher education to help more students achieve educational success.

Research repeatedly demonstrates that unnecessary justice system involvement for children produces negative outcomes and actually reduces public safety in the long run.

2. Eliminate “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies that funnel youth from schools into the justice system.

3. Keep kids who commit offenses out of the juvenile justice system whenever possible. The U.N. Convention calls for a variety of responses to juvenile crime, including counseling, vocational training programs, and other alternatives before sending them to secure facilities, thus allowing kids to be held accountable for their behavior without experiencing the harm, stigma, potential trauma, and lasting consequences of system involvement. Research repeatedly demonstrates that unnecessary justice system involvement for children produces negative outcomes and actually reduces public safety in the long run.

4. Ensure that children facing system involvement have competent lawyers to advocate on their behalf. The Luzerne County, PA “kids-for-cash” scandal could have been prevented if every youth was represented by legal counsel, or if all youth—even those who couldn’t afford private attorneys—would have had access to lawyers who were well trained in juvenile law. Pennsylvania responded to the kids-for cash travesty by enacting Act 23, which only allows youth to waive their right to counsel in very limited circumstances. Other states must follow suit.

5. Urge the Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to demonstrate our country’s commitment to protecting and ensuring children’s rights, and hold ourselves accountable to that commitment before the international community.

6. Educate our elected officials and policymakers about what does and doesn’t work to help at-risk youth.

Although America’s juvenile crime rate has declined steadily for the last 20 years, the United States continues to incarcerate too many youth for minor misbehavior. Unnecessary incarceration does nothing to improve public safety. It is expensive. It can be fixed.

Juvenile Law Center will continue to advocate for solutions to better protect the rights and well-being of children in the United States and we greatly appreciate your support.