Research has long shown that locking up young people puts them at greater risk of dropping out of school, joining the unemployment line and becoming permanently entangled in the criminal justice system. States and municipalities have thus been sending fewer young offenders to juvenile institutions and more of them to community-based programs that keep them connected to their families and reduce the risk that they will engage in further crime. The number of children held in custody plummeted from about 107,000 in 1995 to less than 71,000 in 2010 and is still falling.
This is all to the good. But the authorities could bring even more juveniles into the mainstream if they did a significantly better job of educating them. That means paying more attention to the learning disabilities, emotional problems and substance abuse issues with which these youngsters are disproportionately afflicted and which often helped land them in trouble in the first place.
It is a mistake to assume that all children held in juvenile facilities represent “hard cases” beyond redemption. Indeed, a new study, by the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Atlanta, shows that nearly two-thirds of the young people who were confined in 2010 were confined for nonviolent offenses.
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