When Dante was 16 years old, he was charged with armed robbery. One evening, as part of a gang initiation, he approached a man waiting alone for a bus in Washington, D.C., and threatened him: “Give it up, give it up, give it up, or I’ll cut you!” Frightened, the man threw some cash on the ground and ran away. Dante ran in the opposite direction, unaware that a bystander had seen the incident. He was quickly apprehended by the police.

Dante’s case did not look promising. When the police caught up with him, he had a knife and $12 in his pocket and confessed to having robbed the man, Mr. Thomas. He was taken to a juvenile correctional facility to await his fate.

Thankfully for Dante, James Forman, Jr., a young public defender, was assigned to his case. Within the cold, hard walls of the juvenile correctional facility, Forman got to know his young client and was moved by his story. As children, Dante and his brother had often been left by their drug-addicted mother to fend for themselves. Beneath the label “violent offender,” Forman recognized that Dante was just a fatherless young man searching for a sense of belonging, which, unfortunately, he found by joining a gang.

Knowing that Dante’s life prospects would be grim if he were incarcerated in a juvenile correctional facility, Forman set about finding programs that might serve as an alternative to incarceration. Because Dante had committed a violent crime, however, this proved difficult, as many programs refused to accept him. Eventually, Forman found a program run by a church that would.

Forman knew that garnering support from the victim would increase Dante’s chances of being granted participation in an alternative program, and before Dante’s case went before the judge, he visited the home of Mr. Thomas, who accepted an apology letter from Dante and said he would give Forman’s proposal some thought. By the time the court date came around, Mr. Thomas was supportive of alternative programming. During Dante’s sentencing, the judge told him: “Son, don’t thank Mr. Thomas with your words. Thank him with your actions.”

That’s exactly what Dante did.

In late September, Forman—now a clinical professor of law at Yale—told Dante’s story at a panel discussion on over-criminalization hosted by The Center for the Study of Human Flourishing at The King’s College. Years after representing Dante, Forman said, he was crossing the street in D.C. when he heard someone yelling his name. It was Dante, now a grown man, working construction to support a family of his own. He had not forgotten Forman’s efforts, nor Mr. Thomas’s kindness.

However, just over 50,000 young people, who are incarcerated in 696 juvenile correctional facilities across the United States, are not so lucky. Instead of a second chance, they are given prison time in facilities that are supposed to rehabilitate them, but often destine them to a life spent cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system. Although the rate of incarceration for youth has been rapidly declining over the past two decades—decreasing by 41 percent from 1995 to 2010—there is still much work to be done. A new report, “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” published in October by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management and the National Institute of Justice, offers a way forward.

In the report, authors Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi, and Miriam Shark call for every youth prison in the United States to be closed and “replaced with a network of community-based programs and small facilities near the youth’s communities.” Youth prisons have failed, the authors argue, and they have been failing since the first reformatory, Massachusetts’s Lyman School for Boys, opened in 1846 in response to rising misbehavior among the young, urban poor. “America’s approach to youth incarceration,” they write, “has been built on the premise that a slightly modified version of the adult correctional model of incarceration, control, coercion, and punishment—with a little bit of programming sprinkled in—would rehabilitate young people.”

But if America’s correctional model is not working well for adults, it is definitely not working for youth. Between 70 and 80 percent (rates vary by state) of incarcerated youth return to a youth correctional facility or prison within two to three years. This high recidivism rate comes not only at a high social cost but also a high financial one: states spend approximately $150,000 each year to incarcerate just one juvenile offender. To offer an extreme example, Connecticut has one youth correctional facility (which the governor recently mandated be closed) that has a $53 million budget and holds only 43 young men. According to a 2014 report from the Justice Policy Institute, the long-term costs of incarcerating youth—accounting for the loss of future earnings, loss of future tax revenue, and increased Medicare and Medicaid spending—is estimated between $8 and $21 billion each year.

If America’s correctional model is not working well for adults, it is definitely not working for youth.

Furthermore, maltreatment of young prisoners is well documented, as in this 2015 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Instead of sending troubled youth to juvenile corrections facilities that, in the words of the Harvard Kennedy School/NIJ report, “exacerbate many of the factors that brought them to the attention of the courts in the first place,” what if troubled youth were able to participate in programs that actually helped them get their lives back on track?

To make their point, the report authors compare the experiences of two 16-year-olds: MJ and DS (note: It’s unclear in the report as to whether these are actual or fictional young men.) MJ is sentenced to 18-months at Elm Tree Correctional Center. When he arrives at the center, he is directed to a small cell, where he can hear yelling and clanging metal doors. He waits for a while and then is instructed to strip naked so officers can search him. Later, he is taken to his own cell, which has a cot with a thin blanket but no sheets or pillow, and is occupied by a roommate who has no interest in talking to him. When he is locked in for the night, he feels lonely and afraid.

Contrast the experience of DS, who is sent to the Back on Track House instead of a juvenile correctional facility. The Back on Track House is only 10 minutes from where DS’s family lives, so they will be able to visit him during evenings and weekends. DS is welcomed to the house by counselors, meets with the principal, and is patted down. He is then taken to a room with couches and bean bags, where he is greeted by several other guys in the program. DS is assigned a “buddy” to show him the ropes, and his roommate tells him about how the Back on Track House will help him if he puts in the effort. The young men eat dinner family style and before they go to bed, they meet in a circle to talk about their days and are given time to read or do homework. DS wakes up the next morning to his own alarm clock and knows that is up to him to make sure he is at breakfast on time.

The report asks: Which of these young men is more likely to be rehabilitated—the one in a facility characterized by “violence and control, submission, and defiance” or the one in the house where there is “guidance, learning, role-modeling, and caring relationships”?

The authors of the Harvard Kennedy School/NIJ report recommend a four-pronged approach to change how we deal with juvenile offenders: reduce, reform, replace, and reinvest.

  • According to the report, states can “reduce the pipeline into youth prisons by at least half” by only incarcerating those who have committed serious offenses and are a public safety risk. Only 27 percent of youth in juvenile correctional facilities are incarcerated for person offenses, such as assault, robbery, rape, or homicide. The remaining 63 percent are incarcerated for non-person offenses: drug offenses, property crimes, public order offenses, and probation violations.
  • The report also recommends programmatic reforms, such as more alternative programs like those Dante and DS benefited from, as well as practical reforms, such as abolishing zero-tolerance policies and allowing judges to decide what will best serve a youth’s needs.
  • The report emphasizes that very few youth need to be put in confinement. Those who do need to be confined should be placed in small, non-correctional programs that are “treatment intensive,” “developmentally appropriate,” and close to the youth’s home rather than the existing juvenile correctional facilities.
  • “As systems start to shift their practice to keep more youth at home and to use more effective but less costly approaches to supervision and services,” the authors write, “the dollars saved can be used to further expand the array of options available,” an idea the American public overwhelmingly supports.

According to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trust survey, 85 percent of voters across party lines agreed with the statement, “It does not matter whether a juvenile offender is sent to a juvenile corrections facility or supervised in the community. What really matters is that the system does a better job of making sure that he or she is less likely to commit another crime.” If closing youth correctional facilities and replacing them with programmatic solutions is more effective, more humane, less expensive, and enjoys public support, what are we waiting for?

When James Forman, Jr., told Dante’s story, he ended by asking: What might happen if the criminal justice system “acted more routinely like Mr. Thomas”? As a nation, we should not consider youth offenders as a problem to be solved, or as “the other” who should be put away—out of sight and out of mind. Rather, we should consider them our nation’s children—troubled, yes, but also creative, intelligent, full of possibility, and deserving of a second chance. We should strive to produce more stories like Dante’s and protect more young people from becoming recidivism statistics.