|NASHVILLE - The number of juvenile offenders confined in correctional facilities across the state is falling dramatically, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In the past 12 years, the report said, the rate of youth confinement in Tennessee has dropped by 66 percent, the largest decrease in the nation.
"This is very important," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of Tennessee Kids Count, "because we know when we provide interventions for youth in the least restrictive environment possible, we improve their life trajectories. Avoiding unnecessary incarceration results in better outcomes for youth, improved public safety for communities and lower costs for taxpayers."
The report shows that the downward trend is also true nationally. For the United States as a whole, the rate of incarcerated juveniles fell by more than a third from 1997 to 2010, reaching a 35-year low.
The nation-best reduction in youth incarceration didn't come by accident, O'Neal said. The move to more community-based alternatives is an effort that has been ongoing for years with various stakeholders across Tennessee, she said.
"These include the Department of Children's Services' better use of assessment instruments to decide which children are really a security risk and therefore need to be in a confined placement," she said. "And juvenile courts all across Tennessee have been focused on trying to avoid unnecessary placement of young people in detention."
Laura Speer, the Casey Foundation's associate director for policy and research, said the move to incarceration alternatives has come with no discernible decrease in public safety. She noted that about three-quarters of incarcerated youths are there for nonviolent offenses.
"They have a chance to get their lives back on track," she said, "and so we want to make sure they get put in the best possible program to get them back on track."
While the rates of incarcerated juveniles have fallen across all racial groups, African-American, Latino and American Indian youths still are more likely to be confined than are their white peers. In addition, the report said, the United States still incarcerates young people at a much higher rate than do other industrialized countries.
The report, "Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States," is online at aecf.org.