In 2001, Grace Bauer’s 13-year-old son Corey was sent to what many considered to be the worst juvenile prison in the country.

Corey was sentenced to five years in Office of Youth Development custody by the Louisiana Department of Corrections for breaking into a pickup truck and stealing a $300 radio. It was the  first criminal conviction for the Honor Roll student, and the event that would skew the direction of the rest of his life.

“He probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet when he was sent to Tallulah,” Bauer said, referring to Louisiana’s infamous Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, which was forced to close its doors in 2004, after horrifying reports of life inside of the prison led to the passage of the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act.

That was the beginning of a life that would be spent in and out of the prison system. Corey’s story, said Bauer – who is now the co-director of the advocacy group Justice for Families – is a perfect example of how the United States’ juvenile justice system has done more to contribute to the nation’s so-called “school to prison” pipeline than it has to actually rehabilitate troubled children, something outlined in a new report from Justice for Families and DataCenter.

The report, based on more than 1,000 surveys with parents and family members of incarcerated youth, describes a juvenile criminal justice system that rips minors away from their homes to make them wards of the state, where they are often subjected to traumatizing physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and isolation.

Those experiences only make them more likely to commit another crime.  In fact, within three years of release, up to 72 percent of juvenile offenders are convicted of a new crime, according to a 2011 analysis from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization for disadvantaged children. There have been persistent reports of maltreatment in at least one state-funded institution in nearly half the states analyzed, according to Justice for Families, which found an astounding one in eight confined youth reported being sexually assaulted by staff or other minors during their incarceration.

The families of youth offenders, Bauer said, are often viewed as part of the problem -- after all, they must have done something wrong to raise children incarcerated before their 18th birthday. But, according to the report, families are a crucial part of the solution.

Juvenile Confinement Increases Odds of Adult Imprisonment

Corey Bauer, now 24, is in the middle of a 12-year sentence in Maryland’s Roxbury Correctional Institute for holding up the pizza restaurant where he worked, with a toy gun.  Since his initial arrest at the age of 13, Bauer said her son has only spent a total of six years outside of prison.

“These kids come out with so many challenges and they are never taught how to interact normally so they can go back to school, get a job and generally function on the outside,” Bauer said.

Of the families surveyed by Justice for Families, 69 percent said it was either “difficult” or “very difficult” to get their child back into school following their detention. While some of that can be attributed to the stigma of having been through the youth prison system, many families said much of the challenge stems from an almost unbelievable lack of communication. It’s so bad they often do not even know when their child is being released.

“Kids are told, ‘It’s your release day. Grab your clothes, it’s time to go.’ This is poor planning on the part of systems and only sets the kids up for failure,” said a California parent cited by the report.

As it stands, three-quarters of the respondents said they faced serious impediments to visiting their children in juvenile facilities, making it even more difficult for them to evaluate living conditions or their child’s physical and emotional well-being.  

Grace Bauer knows that from personal experience.  It took her weeks to see her son after his first arrest, when he was transferred to Tallulah. Once she was actually able to see him, she found him emaciated and covered with bruises that had been inflicted during a hazing by prison guards. At one point, Corey was held down in a cell and raped by another youth, while guards reportedly stood outside the cell and made bets on who would “win” the fight.

“One of the teachers allowed in said Corey stuck out like a sore thumb. She said he seemed like he was on the verge of a mental breakdown from the fear, anxiety and isolation,” Bauer said.

But once he was released, Corey was unable to receive mental health treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder because his family could not afford the cost of care. Because at least half of juvenile offenders  come from low-income households, most of them do not receive the medical or rehabilitative care they need to successfully re-enter society once they are released from state custody.

And in fact, most youth offenders aren’t even arrested for violent crimes.  In 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, juvenile arrests for violent offenses fell to the lowest level since at least 1980. The U.S. Department of Justice reports most of the arrests stemmed from property crimes such as burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. Black youths, according to the source, “were overrepresented” in juvenile arrests that year.

$88K Well Spent?

It costs $88,000 a year to keep one minor in state custody – more than twice the cost of one year of tuition at Harvard. In 2007, states spent about $5.7 billion on juvenile incarceration; that money was almost entirely used toward correctional confinement, with little-to-no funding for counseling or educational and vocational training.

 That doesn't typically enhance public safety. The states most successful at lowering their juvenile confinement rates between 1997 and 2007 simultaneously saw the greatest decline in juvenile violent crimes and arrests than states with higher incarceration rates, the Annie. E Casey Foundation reports.

States should look to Connecticut’s Case Review Team as a prime example of how to transform the juvenile sentencing process for the better, according to Justice for Families. Connecticut –- which the Justice Department reports has experienced one of the sharpest drops in both youth confinement and crime in recent years –- sets up conferences that include family members, probation staff, school personnel and social workers to explore alternatives to institutional confinement. In the first two years of employing that system, 72 percent of the participating youth reportedly avoided out-of-home placement. A substantial number of them did not have any further encounters with the justice system.

In addition to reforming the sentencing process, experts say investing directly in communities -– by supporting basic social services such as education, affordable housing and drug rehabilitation -- is typically associated with increased public safety.

“We want kids to be accountable for their actions. But the question is, how do we hold them accountable while also allowing them to succeed and become productive members of society? We don’t want them all to end up like Corey, my son,” Bauer said.