Effective Alternatives to Youth Incarceration

June 28, 2023

FROM: The Sentencing Project, Written by Richard Mendel, Read full report here 

Youth Alternatives to Incarceration, Rawpixel.com


As The Sentencing Project documented in Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence, compelling research proves that incarceration is not necessary or effective in the vast majority of delinquency cases. Rather, incarceration most often increases young people’s likelihood of returning to the justice system. Incarceration also damages young people’s future success in education and employment. Further, it exposes young people, many of whom are already traumatized, to abuse, and it contradicts the clear lessons of adolescent development research. These harms of incarceration are inflicted disproportionately on Black youth and other youth of color.

Reversing America’s continuing overreliance on incarceration will require two sets of complementary reforms. First, it will require far greater use of effective alternative-to-incarceration programs for youth who have committed serious offenses and might otherwise face incarceration. Second, it will require extensive reforms to state and local youth justice systems, most of which continue to employ problematic policies and practices that can undermine the success of alternative programs and often lead to incarceration of youth who pose minimal risk to public safety.

This report addresses the first challenge: What kinds of interventions can youth justice systems offer in lieu of incarceration for youth who pose a significant risk to public safety?1 Specifically, it identifies six program models that consistently produce better results than incarceration, and it details the essential characteristics required for any alternative-to-incarceration program – including homegrown programs developed by local justice system leaders and community partners – to reduce young people’s likelihood of reoffending and steer them to success. 


Alternative-to-Incarceration Models That Work

This report will describe six program models that show compelling evidence of effectiveness, and also enjoy the backing of energetic organizations dedicated to supporting replication efforts. 

  • Credible messenger mentoring programs hire community residents with a history of involvement in the justice system who provide intensive support to youth and their families, typically as one part of a multi-pronged intervention.
  • Advocate/Mentor programs, such as Youth Advocate Programs, assign trained community residents to work intensively with young people and their families, providing support to the families and helping young people avoid delinquency and achieve goals delineated in their individualized case plans. 
  • Family-focused, multidimensional therapy models, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) employ specially trained therapists who follow detailed protocols to identify and confront factors that propel a young person toward delinquent conduct, with a heavy focus on working with family members to support youth success.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy plus mentors for youth and young adults at extreme risk, like the programs offered by Roca, Inc., engage youth and young adults living in violence-torn neighborhoods who are at extreme risk for future incarceration. Roca youth workers provide participants with cognitive behavioral therapy and connect them with education, employment, and other relevant services.
  • Restorative Justice interventions targeting youth accused of serious offenses provide an alternative to traditional court. These programs typically involve victims, and they culminate in a conference where victims, accused youth, and caring adults in their lives meet to discuss the harm caused by the offense and craft plans for the youth to “make things right” and to avoid subsequent offending and achieve success.

Wraparound programs assign a care coordinator to develop individualized plans offering an array of services to assist children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances – sometimes including youth facing serious delinquency charges – who might otherwise be placed into residential facilities.

Homegrown Alternatives 

Research also finds that locally designed alternative-to-incarceration programs can produce equal or better outcomes than the six models above. These homegrown programs will achieve maximum success if they connect youth with:

  • a trusted mentor, advocate, therapist or care coordinator who provides ongoing support and encouragement; 
  • rigorous and well-designed cognitive behavioral therapies; 
  • close cooperation with, and support for, young people’s families; and
  • constructive education, employment, and recreational or community service activities.

    Also, success is far more likely when interventions are sufficiently intensive, tailored to the individual needs and circumstances of the young person and designed to ease the impact of childhood trauma.


    Whether they employ one of the six program models profiled here or a well-designed homegrown approach, effective alternative-to-incarceration programs produce better public safety outcomes than incarceration, at far lower costs, and do far less damage to young people’s futures. 

    Expanding the use of these programs is necessary for youth justice systems to reduce overreliance on incarceration. However, to make a meaningful difference, these programs must be embedded in youth justice systems that strive to steer youth away from more intensive court supervision at every stage of the process and that explore all available options to keep young people at home and in their communities. Youth justice systems must also make concerted efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in youth confinement. 

    In the end, the most essential ingredient for reducing overreliance on youth incarceration will be a determination to seize every opportunity to keep young people living safely at home with their parents and families, in their schools and communities.