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Federal juvenile justice reforms would encourage changes in Michigan

Dec 23, 2014

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Congress is set to consider updating a decades-old law that guides states on the custody and care of juveniles in the criminal justice system.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was introduced this month, and one big change is an incentive for states to lock up fewer children.

Investigative journalist Nell Bernstein says locking kids up is expensive, costing about $200 per day, per inmate - and says the harm it causes can stay with kids for the rest of their lives.

"When you control for everything under the sun including the delinquent act," says Bernstein, "the ones we incarcerate are twice as likely to end up as adult prisoners."

Bernstein's research into juvenile justice has focused on lawsuits related to guards abusing kids in custody. Michigan is facing several such lawsuits. She also claims guards are rarely punished, and kids are afraid to speak up or don't have safe ways to file grievances.

Bernstein advocates for closing most juvenile detention facilities, and says treating the underlying issues closer to kids' homes is more effective. She also believes that "acting out," "mouthing off," skipping school or shoplifting, which often leads to kids being put behind bars, is simply a developmental phase.

"We have to unlock ourselves from this concept that the first-line response when a young person does something we don't want them to do is to remove them from home and community, and place them in a locked institution," she says.