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Opinion | Jessica Lander

Keep kids out of detention

It can take only three weeks to ruin a life.

Imagine you’re a 15-year-old student accused of shoplifting. A court date is selected and bail is set, but your family cannot gather the funds. Or perhaps you are living in foster care and, because you have been arrested and there is a shortage of placements, the Department of Children and Families gives up your bed.

Like more than 50 percent of detained youth, you are sent to a jail-like detention center, where you are strip-searched. Frightened, you spend the next three weeks living with 15 other kids, ages 11 to 17. Like nearly 80 percent of juveniles accused of crimes, you’re ultimately found innocent or set free on probation.


You return to school, behind in classes, with enough absences to jeopardize passing the semester. Perhaps, too, you have been kicked off the soccer team — you’ve missed too many practices. You have effectively been cut off from many supports that could have helped you get back on track. Just three weeks have passed, but your life has been turned upside down.

In 2015, this was the fate of roughly 2,000 students in Massachusetts.

A third of all children who end up in court experience the state’s detention centers. Few are detained because they represent a danger to their community, as determined by a judge, reports Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, or JDAI. Many violated a condition of probation — sometimes for offenses as small as being tardy to school or arguing with their parents. Too often, judges or parents believe that a stint in detention will scare kids into good behavior, according to a report from the nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

Yet, pre-trial detention can damage children’s educational opportunities in three ways.

First is the educational experience in detention centers. While the Department of Youth Services has recently improved its educational services, the task remains unmanageable. Two teachers face a revolving door of some 20 students, grades 6 through 11, from many different schools. Even the best teachers would struggle to be effective.


Compounding the situation, at least half of detained students have been diagnosed learning and emotional disabilities, according to JDAI — and studies suggest many more are likely undiagnosed. Yet it can take upwards of a week to identify these students, and sometimes an additional week to get a student’s individual education plan. Even then, detention centers too often don’t have the necessary specialized teachers and therapy to support students struggling with everything from language-based learning disabilities and processing disorders, to anxiety and depression.

Second are the consequences when they return to school. In addition to being behind on school work, they need to get their absences excused. If not, they face failing a semester or an entire year of school. Yet centers do not automatically send children’s detention transcripts. The child, family, or social worker must actively ask that the transcript be sent and the absences excused.

Third are the long-term effects. Research shows hat being locked up before trial leads children to be treated more harshly by the system.

Even if they are found innocent, students’ court records follow them for life in Massachusetts, and they are significantly more likely to drop out of school, and later enter the adult justice system, describes a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

How does Massachusetts ensure students’ futures are not upended by three weeks in detention? Ten years ago, the state began partnering with the national JDAI; together, they have cut detention rates in half. Luckily, there are effective alternatives to detention.


One proven option is to place kids in local foster-care programs, supervised and supported by DYS, while they await trial. When taken from their homes, students remain in their community and school. According to JDAI, these foster-care programs have been successful. But across the state, there’s only space for fewer than a hundred students a year to participate.

Another option is for courts to recommend students to community programs that keep them in their home and school while providing a range of academic and social supports. The Detention Diversion Advocacy Project of the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corp in Dorchester, Springfield, and Holyoke matches roughly 50 children a year with advocates who check in daily with students — accompanying them to court, making school visits, and connecting them to afterschool and academic activities. Such programs need to be expanded.

In addition, the state needs to support programs that intervene before a student sees the inside of a courtroom. With Cambridge’s Safety Net Collaborative — a partnership between police, schools, and more than 20 nonprofits and city organizations — teams of police, social workers, and others, acting as case managers to the city’s children, have helped reduce juvenile arrests by 70 percent.

Ensuring no student is needlessly held in secure detention is not only morally right, but economically smart. The state spends roughly $300 a day to lock a child up. Placing them in local foster-care programs is less than half the cost. Programs like the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project cost just one-sixth as much as a night in detention.


But the cost — to the students and the Commonwealth — is far greater than the dollars spent on beds and staff at detention centers. The repercussions of three weeks in detention can ripple out over 30 years — diminishing students’ educational success, their job opportunities, and their economic contributions to society. Investing in programs to keep students out of court and out of detention isn’t just the right thing for them, it pays huge dividends for society.

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.