Ron Coenen

Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against Youth Services International, Inc. (YSI), a private company that operates fifteen for-profit juvenile prisons nationwide, funded by state taxpayers.[1] The suit alleges that YSI staff at the Thompson Academy facility in Broward County, Florida, physically and sexually abused juvenile inmates, and unconstitutionally denied juvenile inmates access to their attorneys.  A mother of an alleged victim stated that "[n]o child should ever have to endure something like this from a system that is supposed to help him."[2]


Putting aside the lawsuit’s merits, the mother's statement reminds us of an underlying philosophical issue involved in this case. Should the mission of our juvenile justice system be rehabilitative, a "system that is supposed to help" juvenile offenders, or retributive, a system that punishes juvenile offenders proportionately to the harm they caused?


The original purpose of juvenile justice systems was to protect the minor throughout the criminal proceedings.  Children were not conceptualized as criminals, but as “wards of the state, not fully responsible for their conduct and capable of being rehabilitated.”  The proceeding was not intended to be adversarial; in fact, the judge presided as a father-figure who represented the best interests of the child.[3]


Over the years, juvenile justice systems have moved farther away from its rehabilitative foundation in favor of a more punitive model.  Perhaps nothing reflects this country’s movement away from the rehabilitative model than the fact that we are willing to put the lives of our convicted juvenile offenders in the hands of private companies.[4]


Wherever the right balance between rehabilitation and punishment lies, it seems that we have strayed too far from rehabilitation by privatizing large juvenile corrections facilities.  Certainly, private facilities can be used to fulfill our punitive goals; temporarily depriving minors of their liberty is straightforward.  However, private facilities cannot be trusted to fulfill our rehabilitative goals because a private company’s priority is profit.


Higher rates of recidivism in states that have moved heavily towards privatization are evidence that private companies are failing to fulfill any interest we have in rehabilitation. Not-to-mention, the long-term costs of prosecuting subsequent offenders outweighs any short-term economic justification to continue using private facilities.[5]