Like many of the problems in US prisons, I believe a simplistic Get Tough on Crime strategy fails because it can't get past it's own PR. Often it is cheaper and more effective to provide a mix of accountability and assistance that begins before children are arrested for crimes.
Tragedy is strewn with lost chances. If only an Asian boy had not been locked up with a racist psychopath. If only prison officers had heeded the warning signs, as clear as the RIP branded on his forehead, that Robert Stewart was programmed to murder. If only systemic failure and human error had not collided, then Zahid Mubarek might never have had his brains beaten out on the primrose-yellow pillow of cell 38 in Swallow wing of Feltham Young Offenders' Institution.
The first lesson of the Mubarek report, that we lock up too many children, was effectively ignored, despite the news that prison numbers are at an all-time high of 77,865. So build more jails, the diehards say. Prison works. Some media obituaries implied that it almost worked for Zahid Mubarek, made mature and repentant by his spell inside. If Feltham had not killed Zahid, it would have surely saved him. Such logic is perverse and bogus. Very probably, he would have changed, but the catalyst would have been his supportive family, not jail. On Howard League figures, seven out of 10 of the 19,000 18- to 20-year-olds given short sentences in 2004 were back in prison within two years.
Many times the social and economic systems that impact at-risk children set them up to fail. I don't know how many laws I broke when I was in the anger stage after being raped. Oddly enough the only two times I got into the criminal justice system were caused by other people's actions. The first was for underage drinking. The second was for a hit and run accident when I was 18. In response to my rape I became, in the eyes of the law, a worse person than my rapist.
When the systems that impact children are overloaded, the worst of the worst (minors and adults) can slip between the cracks and get out either legally or by escape or they can find an endless supply of victims a nice perk of prison life.
Update: 7/8 8:30 pm:
BBC: Think-tank attacks crime strategy
Policies aimed at reforming the criminal justice system use a "flawed" analysis of the causes of problems, an independent think-tank has claimed. The Crime and Society Foundation, based at King's College, London, says the justice system wrongly focuses on crime through policing and the courts.Technorati tags: crime politics
In a report, it says ministers could cut crime by concentrating on social problems such as
poverty and sexism. The think-tank claims crime rates are far higher than have been acknowledged. The report concludes that the government is trapped in a "policy cul-de-sac" of trying to raise conviction rates by improving criminal justice effectiveness.