The System is Broken


The system is broken. There’s no doubt if you’ve worked in the human services field, or the education field, or watched political candidates speak, or pay income taxes…if you have ever participated in most modern societies, you have heard this phrase. Whether it be our education system, our social services system, our tax system, or our criminal justice system, there is certainly no hardship in finding a long list of broken things that need fixing.  What happens when the brokenness equates more brokenness?  When the cycle of ways in which we try and address human issues and societal issues actually causes more harm than good?  This is certainly the case in many areas, including the criminal justice system. This is also especially true when you see the way in which society attempts to address issues of juvenile offending.

It’s no secret that the United States leads the industrialized world in number of people incarcerated, and it’s no different when it comes to young prisoners. According to the Annie E Casey Foundation, the United States currently incarcerates 196 young people (under the age of 21) for every 100,000 kids. This number has slowly decreased over the last year but it still means that close to 65,000 kids are in prison right now. This number does not count the number of youth housed in adult prisons. Also to take into consideration is the large disparity in numbers based on race.  African American youth are approximately five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, with Hispanic and Native American youth being two times more likely.

Why does this matter? Shouldn’t people, even kids, have to account for their crimes?  It’s an honest question, without a simple answer. Recent data has shown that long term confinement has actually no benefit for young people, and in fact greatly increases the likelihood that they will offend again. On top of that matter is that more recent brain science has shown us that brain development is still occurring until the age of 25 in many adolescents and young adults.  What is the last part of the brain to develop fully?  The decision making part. This puts into perspective why so many young people make impulsive and risky decisions up until their mid to late twenties. We have all been there, the difference is, most young people don’t get caught for their poor decisions. 

Putting kids in prison is a poor intervention for young people committing crimes for many reasons. One, kids usually learn bad habits from each other. One of the number one developmental priorities as an adolescent is defining self, and developing social skills.  Many parents, educators, and youth workers can readily identify that young people place the opinions of their peers over many, if not all, adults in their lives.  When we send young people who have committed crimes to prison, they often only learn bad habits from one another. A second reason is the expense for local governments. Prison is increasingly an expensive and ineffectual solution to crime. A third reason is that young people with criminal records often have that criminal record follow them throughout their lifetimes. Yes juvenile records are supposedly confidential and names cannot be printed in the newspaper in most states (not all). But with the rise of internet searches and poor protection of online files, employers and educational institutions can increasingly find information that is supposed to be hidden. Not to mention the lack of good educational programs in most juvenile facilities, which places these already at risk young people even more behind their peers. It is easy to see how one poor decision someone made in adolescence can set them up for failure later on in life, even after they have “paid for their crimes”.

There is good news however. Since the 1990’s youth incarceration rates have begun to fall.  This is largely in part to new initiatives seeking to keep young offenders out of jail.  Many organizations locally and internationally have begun to pioneer programs that either divert youth from prison placements, or try and prevent criminal records in the first place.


“There is good news however. Since the 1990’s youth incarceration rates have begun to fall.  This is largely in part to new initiatives seeking to keep young offenders out of jail.”


New Zealand is a country that really began to pioneer this approach in recent years.  A law was passed called Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 (CYPFA) that focused on changing the way that the state handled children and families that were vulnerable and at risk.  A program that came out of this was something called the Family Group Conference (FGC’s).  Family Group Conferences have roots in Maori (the indigenous people group of New Zealand) consensus decision making process and try and bring multiple stakeholders together to decide what actions would be in the best interest of the justice involved youth.  This process often includes specially trained police officers and lawyers, social workers, and victims and their families as well as the young offender and their family.  This process is aimed at diverting youth from the justice system, keeping them from developing a criminal record, and connecting children and families to much needed mental health, education, and other services to better support the family and the youth towards reaching a better future. For twenty five plus years New Zealand has been reviewing, researching, and adjusting this process to best serve these vulnerable youth.

Massachusetts is also home to some very innovative programs that are also moving in the direction of diverting kids from the justice system and keeping them out of prison. Many offer therapeutic and family based services while utilizing probation as a method of keeping kids out of the prison system and in their communities. The Salvation Army  and the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps  are two of the programs pioneering such programs in the Greater Boston area.  Also Youth Connect which operates in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club of Boston and the Boston Police Department aims at intervening with at risk youth through family therapy and community services before youth have even reached their first offense or a court date.

Of course there are many more innovative programs making strides towards preventing young people from engaging in criminal acts, and if they do happen to enter the court system, in helping them stay out of the prison system. These programs engage youth and families and encourage youth to not only take accountability for their actions, but to move on from their offences to lead healthy and productive lives.  We are all responsible for being a part of the solution.


“We are all responsible for being a part of the solution.” 

Amy Gatlin is currently working as graduate assistant for the Office of Government and External Affairs and Profile PicCommunity Impact as the Grants Coordinator.  She holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Minnesota Duluth and is in her final year of her Master’s Program at Wheelock College in Social Work.  She hopes to engage in international work with her social work degree upon graduation as well as advocating for justice reform for juvenile populations and adults.