Irene Sullivan worked nine years as a juvenile court judge in Florida. During her tenure in St. Petersburg she witnessed heartbreaking scenes of incarcerated youth, but she also saw alternative sanctions that resulted in genuine success stories. Sullivan has meticulously researched these programs, and in the July 2011 issue of Reason, she describes a few of the evidence-backed programs that have worked exceedingly well.
For first time offenders, Sullivan recommends civil citations instead of criminal sentences. Suppose, for example, a young teenager is caught shoplifting. A criminal conviction will stay with him indefinitely, and he will face a significant barrier to many scholarship opportunities, licensed occupations, forms of military service, and more. Miami-Dade County, however, gives civil citations to nonviolent first-time juvenile offenders and places them in programs to help prevent future criminal behavior. From 1998 to 2008, juvenile recidivism fell by 80%, saving millions of taxpayer dollars.
For some of the more serious juvenile offenders, civil citations are not a viable option. Instead, Florida uses the Redirection program. Instead of incarcerating these violent offenders, Redirection focuses on in-home family therapy sessions designed around the juvenile’s specific problems in an effort to prevent a lifetime of incarceration. Since the program’s inception four years ago, Floridians have reduced recidivism rates and saved $36.4 million.
A fundamental part of any juvenile justice reform package includes re-entry programs. Tampa Bay recently started the Parenting with Love and Limits program (PLL), designed to help children transition from residential commitment programs back to their family homes. This program holds family healing sessions with youths while they are in the lockdown setting, and it continues through the early weeks after a juvenile’s return home. A duplicate program exists in Indiana, which has seen fantastic results. The one-year recidivism rate for PLL graduates was only 16%.
These successes are encouraging. As most states fight a ruthless budget battle with heated opinions on both sides of the political aisle, these are reforms that everyone can agree upon. Not only do we serve the noble goal of helping the nation’s youth, but we also serve the very pertinent goal of saving taxpayer dollars.