Effective Alternatives to Youth Incarceration


As The Sentencing Project documented in Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence, compelling research proves that incarceration is not necessary or effective in the vast majority of delinquency cases. Rather, incarceration most often increases young people’s likelihood of returning to the justice system. Incarceration also damages young people’s future success in education and employment. Further, it exposes young people, many of whom are already traumatized, to abuse, and it contradicts the clear lessons of adolescent development research. These harms of incarceration are inflicted disproportionately on Black youth and other youth of color.

Reversing America’s continuing overreliance on incarceration will require two sets of complementary reforms. First, it will require far greater use of effective alternative-to-incarceration programs for youth who have committed serious offenses and might otherwise face incarceration. Second, it will require extensive reforms to state and local youth justice systems, most of which continue to employ problematic policies and practices that can undermine the success of alternative programs and often lead to incarceration of youth who pose minimal risk to public safety.

This report addresses the first challenge: What kinds of interventions can youth justice systems offer in lieu of incarceration for youth who pose a significant risk to public safety? Specifically, it identifies six program models that consistently produce better results than incarceration, and it details the essential characteristics required for any alternative-to-incarceration program – including homegrown programs developed by local justice system leaders and community partners – to reduce young people’s likelihood of reoffending and steer them to success.

Alternative-to-Incarceration Models That Work

This report will describe six program models that show compelling evidence of effectiveness, and also enjoy the backing of energetic organizations dedicated to supporting replication efforts.

  1. Credible messenger mentoring programs hire community residents with a history of involvement in the justice system who provide intensive support to youth and their families, typically as one part of a multi-pronged intervention.
  2. Advocate/Mentor programs, such as Youth Advocate Programs, assign trained community residents to work intensively with young people and their families, providing support to the families and helping young people avoid delinquency and achieve goals delineated in their individualized case plans.
  3. Family-focused, multidimensional therapy models, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) employ specially trained therapists who follow detailed protocols to identify and confront factors that propel a young person toward delinquent conduct, with a heavy focus on working with family members to support youth success. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This report identifies six program models that consistently produce better results than youth incarceration.
  4. Cognitive behavioral therapy plus mentors for youth and young adults at extreme risk, like the programs offered by Roca, Inc., engage youth and young adults living in violence-torn neighborhoods who are at extreme risk for future incarceration. Roca youth workers provide participants with cognitive behavioral therapy and connect them with education, employment, and other relevant services.
  5. Restorative Justice interventions targeting youth accused of serious offenses provide an alternative to traditional court. These programs typically involve victims, and they culminate in a conference where victims, accused youth, and caring adults in their lives meet to discuss the harm caused by the offense and craft plans for the youth to “make things right” and to avoid subsequent offending and achieve success.
  6. Wraparound programs assign a care coordinator to develop individualized plans offering an array of services to assist children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances – sometimes including youth facing serious delinquency charges – who might otherwise be placed into residential facilities.


By now the verdict is clear. Any objective reading of the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that incarceration is neither necessary nor effective in the vast majority of cases of adolescent lawbreaking. On the contrary, as The Sentencing Project documented in Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence, removing youth from their homes substantially increases the likelihood that they will return to the justice system on new charges. Incarceration also damages young people’s futures, exposes many already traumatized youth to abuse, and contradicts the clear lessons of adolescent development research. And because of continuing system biases, these harms of incarceration are inflicted disproportionately on Black youth and other youth of color.

This report examines the obvious follow-up question: If not incarceration, what? What programs can be used to safely supervise youth who commit serious offenses and pose a significant risk of reoffending and endangering public safety, and to steer them away from delinquency?

The report begins by reviewing the evidence showing the poor outcomes of youth incarceration, and some of the reasons why youth incarceration fails. Next the report identifies several strategies that have shown a positive impact on adolescent offending – and particularly on reducing reoffending rates of youth who have previously engaged in delinquent conduct. It then documents the evidence supporting six multifaceted intervention models that have demonstrated effectiveness as alternatives to incarceration for youth following adjudication. (See Text Box below on why this report focuses less on pre-trial detention.) None of the models highlighted here are guaranteed to prevent reoffending by all youth, or by any particular young person, nor should they be expected to do so. But the evidence shows that all six are significantly more likely than incarceration to reduce reoffending behaviors, enhance public safety, and increase young people’s future success.


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