Burning Down the House

The End of Juvenile Prison

By Nell Bernstein

The New Press. 365 pp. $26.95

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Marsha Levick

Nell Bernstein's new book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, is a deft strike at the heart of America's century-old practice of locking children away in institutions.

A searing indictment of the human cost of breaking connections in children's lives, the book is an urgent drumbeat that warns us of evil done in the name of good. Bernstein's pages overflow with stories of children's lives lost - first to the abusive and dysfunctional environments of their families, then to the trauma and violence they witnessed or experienced in their communities, and finally to the unforgiving and abusive environments in the institutions we created to "save" them.

Burning Down the House is all the more disturbing in its insistence that what plagues today's juvenile justice system has been there from the beginning - the conflict between care and control, rehabilitation versus punishment, and the willingness to condemn these children as "other."

Gut-wrenching and mind-numbing in its juxtaposition of cold statistics with tragic stories of broken lives, Bernstein's book is a powerful battle cry for action. For seasoned juvenile justice advocates, the statistics are familiar but no less jarring; for the uninitiated, the numbers should send them all scrambling to join Bernstein's crusade. Capturing scores of studies and years of research, she offers a barrage of grim, yet undeniable data that underscore her central point: The juvenile justice system is completely failing in its core mission to rehabilitate children.

While the annual costs for maintaining this system are staggering - according to Bernstein, America is spending $5 billion per year to lock up its children - the return on that investment misses its goal by a wide mark. Rather than providing rehabilitation, the juvenile justice system is actually increasing the likelihood of reoffending. Worse, most of the kids being locked up aren't even dangerous; the vast majority are incarcerated for property crimes, with only 25 percent of youth locked up in state-run facilities having been convicted of violent crimes. Current research shows that while 80 to 90 percent of all teens acknowledge committing some delinquent act during adolescence, most outgrow their delinquent behavior, without state-sanctioned intervention.

The already bleak picture is compounded by persistent and severe racial disparities. Black and brown faces predominate in the juvenile justice system, and every study confirms that the overrepresentation of youth of color in that system is not dictated by offense but by a higher rate of arrest and prosecution by adults. These disparities only deepen as youth penetrate further into the juvenile and adult justice systems.

As if these data weren't enough to challenge some long-held but entirely erroneous assumptions about the juvenile justice system, the stories of life inside juvenile institutions, told directly by the children, are nothing less than an American horror story, with villains, victims, and a few heroes. Recounted in graphic detail, the stories of brutality, torture, and humiliation are Bernstein's knockout punch. Unspeakable tales of beatings, restraints, and solitary confinement - for days, weeks, and months, in barren cells with little to no clothing, blankets, education, or recreation - and often in the face of laughing corrections officers, paint a picture of juvenile confinement that no civilized society should tolerate. Yet we are doing precisely that. As Bernstein notes, indifference is the worst evil of all - and it is with utter indifference that we have accepted what is no less than government-sanctioned child abuse.

Bernstein buttresses her call for the shuttering of juvenile institutions with a historical tally of past efforts at reform. America itself spirals in a pointless cycle - scandalous reports of abuse lead to calls for intervention; intervention provokes reform, which in every instance leads to relapse. Louisiana, Texas, and Florida are cited as only the most recent examples of this round-robin of "building a better mousetrap." Mimicking the oft-repeated definition of insanity, we crazily keep doing the same thing with the ridiculous expectation that we will get a different result. Bernstein characterizes this cycle as "revelation, reform and recidivism." It's not the kids who need help - it's us. And the institutions need "not a wrench, but a wrecking ball."

The heroes are the courageous among us who broke the "recidivist" trend - who resisted the urge to "fix it" and chose radical structural changes instead. Jerome Miller figured this out more than 40 years ago in Massachusetts when he closed all the institutions there; Vincent Schiraldi and Gladys Carrion, both working in New York, more recently recognized the folly in putting yet another patch on a broken system and have simply closed many institutions. In Massachusetts that lesson was unlearned in the years after Miller departed; unless we all change the core values of the juvenile justice system, New York's institutional closures will prove equally fragile.

Bernstein's heroes are also the children who chose to relive the horrors they experienced so others might not have to experience them at all. She doesn't sugarcoat their stories; nor do the children. While many were arrested for typical adolescent behavior, some engaged in violence that led to serious injury and even the death of others. But that only proves the point. No matter how heinous the crime, there must be thresholds of evil that we ourselves will not cross, some level of brutality we will not sanction, especially when dealing with children. In every case, Bernstein returns to the central lesson of these children's lives: Rehabilitation happens in the context of personal relationships. Institutions upend this core principle, precluding the development of autonomy or connections - both central to adolescent development, and both central to the repair of broken children.

As one survivor of the juvenile justice system says, "Children do best when they are held close." To this point, Bernstein offers examples of proven, noninstitutional interventions - Multi-Systemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care - as effective, humane, and staggeringly inexpensive community alternatives.

Burn down the house, indeed, or risk burning a hole so deep in our moral fabric that our own humanity is diminished by the unceasing loss of child after child from our grasp. As one of Bernstein's young survivors instructs, "The time is at hand."

Marsha Levick is deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.