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The Case for Abundance

Last updated 30/8/2023

The detention and incarceration of youth in the United States is a moral failing and public health crisis. It is harmful, ineffective, and expensive.

In 2019, over 240,000 youth total were confined throughout the United States. The U.S. has confinement rates five times higher than the next closest country, South Africa. The reason isn’t differences in youth behavior—it’s the over-incarceration of youth. 

In the U.S., about 60% of youth in detention centers have not been convicted of a crime. Yet for each day of pretrial detention, there is a 1% increased risk of arrest in the following year.

The foundations of youth detention are rooted in racism.

The practice of separating youth from their families is inhumane. It has its roots in both slavery and Native American boarding schools. When Black and Indigenous youth are arrested or come in contact with the juvenile court system, they are significantly less likely to be offered diversion programs. They are also three to four times more likely to be detained than white youth in the same position. 

Youth detention ignores what we know to be true via science and lived wisdom.

In Washington State, a child as young as 8 can have criminal charges brought against them. A 14 year old can be charged as an adult. Charging youth as adults fails to recognize that the adolescent brain continues to develop until the mid to late 20s, and should not have the same criminal culpability standards that are used for adults.

Harmful systems harm youth.

Importantly, youth who have already been harmed by failures in our systems, are the ones most likely to be further punished by our legal system. In Washington State, approximately 25% of youth are arrested within one year of aging out of foster care.  

Communities know best.

While there is no one-size fits all approach, there are multiple promising and successful community-based programs. Multiple studies have demonstrated how successful both pre- and post-sentencing diversion programs are at reducing subsequent criminal legal system involvement compared to detention and incarceration.

Why Abundance

Importantly, the way we conduct research impacts the way we frame an issue and how we think about our practice and policy. The continued framing of research on what programs are associated with arrest or not, focuses our conversations on a deficit model. This perspective:

  • Comes without trust in the brilliance and promise of our youth
  • Draws attention away from the positive outcomes that local community-based organizations work towards
  • Keeps the overall conversation focused on individuals and their behavior, rather than focused on how the systems impact these individuals

Washington state spends $87,540 per year to incarcerate a single youth. Community-based diversion and prevention programs are more effective at reducing subsequent youth contact with the criminal legal system, and are more cost-effective. The question shouldn’t be which programs reduce risk of arrest, but rather, what specific systems change is needed to transition Washington State towards an evidence-based model. A model where youth remain in community and are provided with the support they need for positive re-engagement and connection.  

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