Balis: Fixing youth corrections in Colorado starts by reducing its use

Author: Nate Balis - May 3, 2017 - Updated: April 30, 2017

Nate Balis
Nate Balis

Disturbing conditions in Colorado’s youth corrections facilities were documented in the report Bound and Broken by the Child Safety Coalition. While the allegations and disagreements between the report’s authors and the state’s Department of Youth Corrections (DYC) might seem unbridgeable, there is a path forward for Colorado that starts with rethinking its approach to troubled young people.

Most fundamentally, that path must not be paved with a narrow focus on fixing correctional practices, but rather by a broader youth justice reform agenda that seeks opportunities to safely keep young people out of detention and corrections facilities whenever possible. Our experience at the Annie E. Casey Foundation helping juvenile justice systems shift from a focus on punishment and incarceration to rehabilitation and opportunity suggests that Colorado lead with these four strategies.

1. Safely reduce the pipeline of young people into correctional facilities.

Whether or not Colorado should prioritize increasing staffing ratios within its correctional facilities, one thing is certain — the method for doing so is not to increase the number of staff, but rather to decrease the number of youth incarcerated. While the number of young people in state custody has dropped considerably in recent years, Colorado’s rate of youth incarceration remains higher and has dropped more slowly than in many of its neighboring states based on the most current national data. The majority of young people in DYC custody are charged with non-violent offenses, many with misdemeanors and technical violations. Experience and research suggest that many, if not most, of these young people could be safely supervised in their communities with the right services and supports.

2. Invest in proven alternatives to incarceration.

The National Research Council of the National Academies, in Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, argues that keeping youth in or near their home communities is less disruptive to their developmental progress. Far beyond youth prisons, Colorado’s judges need better options for matching youth needs with effective alternatives, especially community-based and family-centered programs that are proven to work with young people.

3. Use financial incentives to keep more children in their home communities.

In Colorado, perverse financial incentives encourage counties to send youth to DYC facilities rather than serving their needs closer to home. In contrast, states such as California, Texas and Ohio commit only youth with the most serious offenses to state custody and allocate funds to counties to help them cover the costs of local supervision and services. All three states experienced marked declines in youth incarceration and youth crime in the aftermath of these policy changes. Following the leads of these states and others, Colorado should shift the focus and funding of its juvenile justice system from correctional facilities to local communities.

4. Replace traditional correctional approaches and facilities with a better model.

Secure confinement is a necessary option for a limited number of young people. But even for them, large, harsh and developmentally inappropriate settings that resemble adult prisons are not the right place — certainly not if the goal is positive youth development and rehabilitation, as it should be. It is encouraging that Colorado leaders and advocates are looking elsewhere, including Missouri, for models that safely and effectively support youth in secure confinement. The most important take-away from the Missouri approach is its core set of beliefs. Since the 1980s, Missouri’s youth corrections system has been governed by a philosophy and culture that youth in custody still desire to do well and succeed — and with the right support, they can. Missouri’s approach calls for youth corrections to provide the right kinds of help, consistent with public safety, so that young people make the changes and develop the relationships they need to move on to successful and law-abiding adult lives.

Colorado needs to look critically and comprehensively at how it responds to delinquency, including referrals to juvenile courts, community supervision, interventions and supports and the design and culture of out-of-home options. One wouldn’t just redecorate a house that is built on a faulty foundation. Rather than focusing narrowly on conditions of confinement, Colorado should seize this moment of urgency to make fundamental change for the better.

Nate Balis

Nate Balis

Nate Balis is the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. He has more than 15 years of experience in juvenile justice, social policy, research, evaluation and system reform. His email is nbalis@aecf.org.