In Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, journalist Bernstein offers a passionate call to action.
What motivated you to write this book?
I edited a youth newspaper in San Francisco from the late ’80s through the ’90s, and we had kids from every background under the sun. I wrote this book because my staff kept getting locked up. Demographers say one in three of today’s children will be arrested at some point, so I don’t think any teenager is really safe from this wide net. On the other hand, incarceration is not evenly distributed among the population, and there were some clear commonalities around the kids I saw who wound up in the state-run juvenile facilities—overwhelmingly black, poor, kids who had been through some trauma. It became very clear that we were taking the kids crying out the loudest for relationship and connection, and isolating them, counter to what they needed.
You were doing this work when crime was peaking, then it started to go down.
What hit in the mid-’90s was the notion of the “super-predator,” which was the product of demographers and social scientists who told us that as the youth population rose, we were going to see a huge increase in youth crime. These folks described super-predators as “vacant-eyed zombies” with no moral compass. That myth was very powerful politically, and it affected the kids I was working with. One of our staff who had been incarcerated started to come into work in a T-shirt he’d made that said, “No, white lady, I don’t want your purse.”
You note that Missouri has become a model for other states because of its sweeping reforms.
Missouri got rid of all its large-scale youth prisons and created a network of very small facilities around the state. They hired staff who understood that their job was to connect with the kids. Missouri also ensured that the institutions they kept remain part of a continuum, so many kids fulfill the terms of whatever consequence they’re given in the community, if it’s safe for them to do so. I was stunned by what I saw there, but I don’t think it’s the ultimate answer.
What is the ultimate answer?
There’s no evidence, whether you’ve got a kid who shoplifted a pack of cigarettes or a kid who was involved in a homicide, that incarceration is going to improve that kid in any way. California has had recidivism rates in the high 80s or low 90s. On the other hand, there are several programs where there’s strong evidence of effectiveness, including with kids who’ve committed serious crimes. Programs like multisystemic therapy (MST) or functional family therapy (FFT) are relationship-based—a child is treated along with his family instead of being isolated, retraumatized, then sent back to the exact same situation. Interventions like FFT and MST look for the positive relationships in these kids’ lives and try to bolster them and address issues that might have led that kid toward delinquency.