Juvenile justice systems are failing to rehabilitate our young people

  • Date

    Mon 29 Jan 18

Dr Alexandra Cox

Juvenile justice systems aimed at changing the lives of young people for the better are instead trapping them in a vice-like system they struggle to move beyond, according to a new book by Dr Alexandra Cox from our Department of Sociology.

Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People is the result of a three year study inside New York’s juvenile justice system. Dr Cox interviewed and observed 39 young people aged between 15-24 years in secure juvenile facilities, courts, detention facilities and the community. 

She also interviewed and observed frontline staff in two secure juvenile facilities as part of further research. 

Dr Cox said: “Over the years, proposals have been made to shift young people out of adult prisons into juvenile facilities, and from juvenile facilities into mental health institutions, or to more child welfare and social care-oriented institutions, such as residential care homes. My research asks that we closely interrogate all institutions which confine young people and consider the core questions of liberty and justice that they raise.”

Dr Cox found that young people in secure juvenile facilities are expected to conform to a regime that is primarily focused on order and control.  As a result, other objectives, such as a focus on their education and physical and mental well-being, get sidelined.

She continued: “Any resistance to the required conformity is punished. Yet, some of that resistance is often either developmentally normal or is a serious attempt by that young person to get their educational and emotional needs met.”    
Dr Alexandra Cox
".....they often fared poorly once released, often as a result of the stigma attached to the fact they’d been ‘inside’.”
Dr Alexandra Cox
Dr Cox also looked at the consequences of confining BAME young people and found that as youth justice systems have grown smaller, the levels of BAME young people in the system have risen disproportionately, and the control experienced in the facility has begun to reflect broader institutionalised forms of racism. 

She said: “Institutionalised racism was expressed both in a subtle way, through the expectations of staff for deference and respect, but also in more overt ways, through the use of animal metaphors to describe the young people, and the suggestion that the only way that they could be brought under control was through physical force and restraint.” 

While inside the secure residential system, Dr Cox found that some staff and administrators did seek to implement practices that would support young people. These included the development of reading programmes and libraries, arts and athletic programmes, and a university degree-granting programme. They also included improved bridges to care on the outside, including guarantees of housing, university entrance, and health insurance. 

Yet, Dr Cox found there was a greater focus by the authorities on expanding therapeutic programming, and even in beautifying the juvenile facilities. This made it difficult to get financial and material support for better educational and resettlement programming.  

Dr Cox concluded: “Efforts at reform in the system must not neglect to see that even if facilities look and feel nicer, the development and care of young people is nearly impossible to achieve within secure confinement, as the obstacles are far too great to the realisation of their development.”
Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People is published on Tuesday 30 January, 2018 by Rutgers University Press. 
Dr Cox’s research was funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust and the Overseas Research Studentship, in addition to the Open Society Foundation via their Soros Justice Advocacy.