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Priming the Pump: Improving Rehabilitation Programs for Adult and Juvenile Inmates

By Emma Rose, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

America’s prisons are overcrowded. This is a widely recognized and globally accepted truth in our legal system, one that the American Bar Association addressed in its 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services. Under Recommendation 9.3, the Report stated that courts should “encourage the creation of programs to provide training and mentoring for those who are incarcerated with a goal of easing reentry into society as productive and law-abiding citizens."

Fortunately, it appears that our legal system has heeded this advice over the last three years. All across the nation, prison programs focusing on education, vocational training, and rehabilitation have become nearly universal. Virtually all federal prisons offer some form of vocational training, and 84% of state prisons offer courses at or above a high school level. Finally, almost every federal prison offers alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs.

Perhaps the greatest indicia of success is that, in many places, the focus has shifted from simply creating these programs to actually improving their quality and breadth. Experts at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice have several recommendations. First, more colleges and universities must offer prison courses. As Director Ann Jacobs stated, schools cannot fully commit to inclusion and diversity without including those who are incarcerated. Second, programming should be expanded beyond purely vocational courses; prisons should be careful to avoid buying into the “better-than-nothing” theory. Third, programs should include those inmates with extended or life sentences, many of whom are currently excluded from rehabilitation and education programs. A report from the Sentencing Project offers what is perhaps the most effective recommendation for improving these programs: prisons need to shift away from one-size-fits-all programming to more individualistic rehabilitation that factors in inmates' actual criminogenic risk factors.

These programs can be exceptionally effective at “priming the pump” for inmates to be success upon reentry into society when implemented properly. For example, graduates of the Marymount Manhattan College’s program for women of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility have recidivism rates of “virtually zero”. And in New York, inmates who earn a college degree while incarcerated are less than half as likely to re-offend after their release as inmates who do not.

But while the last several years have seen remarkable success in the implementation of programs in adult prisons, there is always more work to be done in our justice system. Notably, there was no mention of juvenile justice or improving incarceration conditions for those under the age of eighteen in the ABA’s 2016 Report. One of the most significant problems in the world of juvenile justice is that many teenagers are still being prosecuted as adults, despite mountains of social, biological, and psychological evidence that teenagers need to be treated differently by our legal system.

While the Raise the Age initiative — a policy movement aimed at getting all 50 states to raise the upper boundary age of juvenile jurisdiction to seventeen — recently succeeded, as North Carolina became the 50th state to increase its age to seventeen, nearly every state still affords prosecutors the discretion to charge sixteen and seventeen-year-olds as adults for certain crimes, primarily felonies.

Among the many consequences of trying and incarcerating teenagers with adults are the following most significant:

  • Greater rates of recidivism
  • Increased exposure to assault and gender and sexual violence
  • Higher rates of suicide
  • Greater difficulty re-entering society due to lack of age-appropriate resources while incarcerated, including the proper types of educational and counseling programs
  • Harsher sentences than those received for comparable crimes in the juvenile system
  • Lifelong stigma and difficulty obtaining housing, education, and employment due to an adult record

In some places, since the default age of juvenile jurisdiction increased, prosecutors are using their discretion to try even more teenagers as adults. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for example, the number of teenagers sent to adult court has nearly doubled, despite flat and even declining crime rates.

Another important issue to note is that the same racial disparities that permeate the adult criminal justice system are present in the juvenile system. Teenage minorities are not only more likely to be arrested and prosecuted than their white counterparts, but they are also more likely to then be tried as adults as well.

Just as schools cannot commit themselves to diversity without including the incarcerated, we certainly cannot commit ourselves to reforming the criminal justice system without a significant focus on juveniles. The last few years have seen significant progress in some areas of our justice system, but again, there is much work left to be done.