Report reveals effective alternative-to-incarceration models for youth who have committed serious offenses

Washington, DC —The Sentencing Project has released a report that identifies six alternative to youth incarceration program models that consistently produce better public safety outcomes than incarceration with far less disruption to young people’s healthy adolescent development at a fraction of the cost.

“The evidence is clear that incarceration is a failed strategy for reversing delinquent behavior, damages young people’s futures, and disproportionately harms youth of color,” said Richard Mendel, Senior Research Fellow at The Sentencing Project and author of today’s report, Effective Alternatives to Youth Incarceration: What Works With Youth Who Pose Serious Risks to Public Safety. “When implemented with the full support of state and local youth justice systems, alternative-to-incarceration programs show compelling evidence of effectiveness even for youth who have committed serious offenses.”

The six multifaceted intervention models that have demonstrated effectiveness as alternatives to incarceration for youth following adjudication include (1) credible messenger mentoring programs; (2) advocate/mentor programs; (3) family-focused, multidimensional therapy models; (4) cognitive behavioral therapy; (5) restorative justice interventions; and (6) wraparound programs. The report highlights case studies of their effectiveness. Some examples include:

New York City: In the year after enrolling in NYC’s credible messenger mentoring program, 77% of participants remained arrest-free and just 11% were arrested for a felony.

Baltimore: In Baltimore, 98% of the 352 young people served by Roca’s cognitive behavioral treatment and mentorship model had a history of prior arrests, but only 28% were arrested during their first two years in the Roca program. And 95% of participants were not incarcerated for a new offense during their first two years.

San Francisco: A 2021 study of a restorative conferencing diversion project in San Francisco, which worked with 13- to 17-year-olds accused of felonies such as burglary and assault, found that restorative justice conferencing reduced participants’ rearrest rate by 33% in the year after enrollment, compared to peers in a randomly assigned control group who were prosecuted in court.

The report also details the essential characteristics needed to make these and other alternative-to-incarceration programs successful. 

Despite a large drop over the past two decades, the number of youth in correctional custody remains far too large. Many significant opportunities remain for state and local youth justice systems to further reduce reliance on incarceration in ways that protect the public and enhance young people’s well-being. Pursuing these opportunities – ending the unnecessary, racially unjust, and often abusive confinement of adolescents – should be a top priority of youth justice reform nationwide.