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Youth and Mass Incarceration

The U.S. incarcerates far more young people than any other developed country.[1]  On December 30, 2021, President Biden proclaimed January 2022 as National Mentoring Month citing that every child in America has the right to go as far as their dreams will take them; and those dreams are rarely reached alone. [2]  During this month we are called to honor those who mentor young people.  In the context of Mass Incarceration, it can also serve as an opportunity to raise awareness of the important role that mentors have in the lives of young people who are at risk of crime as they help them navigate around the hurdles of poverty, educational disadvantage, and mental health that often lead to crime.

“Be assured that abuses are not done away with by harsh or severe or autocratic measures, but by teaching rather than by commanding, by persuasion rather than by threats. This is the way to deal with the people in general, reserving severity for the sins of the few. If we make threats, let it be done sorrowfully, in the words of Scripture, and in terms of the world to come. In this way, it is not we who are feared because of our power, but God because of our words.”

Saint Augustine (Letter 22, 5)

Mass Incarceration Impacts All of Us

Why should every American be concerned about this issue? Half of Americans have had a loved one incarcerated.[3] The rate of U.S. incarceration has increased 500% since 1980. Yet, our system of incarceration is not effective. Two out of every three people released from prison still end up committing another crime. Further, children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration.[4] All of these factors perpetuate the cycle of crime and its impacts on all of us.

Incarceration Limits the Potential For Young People

Today, 80% of federal prisoners are under the age of 50, 35% are under the age of 36.[5]  46% of detained juveniles have urgent medical needs, 70% have at least 1 psychiatric disorder.[6]  Individuals with poor health are at higher risk for incarceration (e.g., those suffering with addiction are often incarcerated rather than treated). [7]  Criminologists point to “low social cohesion” and “social disorganization” as root causes of crime.[8]  Incarceration only perpetuates this by continuing to destroy critical social bonds during formative years:  60% of the state prisoners are housed more than 100 miles from their family and less than a third of them receive a visit from a loved one in a typical month.[9]  Further, the social stigma and economic disadvantages that young people face upon release contribute not only to higher rates of recidivism but also higher rates of fatal drug overdose, suicide, and post-traumatic stress.[10]   

RELATED: Mass Incarceration and Addiction

Incarceration Disproportionately Impacts the Poor and Minorities

1 in 3 black men will face incarceration in their lives compared to only 1 in 17 white men.[11]  The juvenile justice system confines Black youth over four times the rate of white youth.[12]  80% of the incarcerated earned less than $15K per year prior to arrest and 70% did not have a diploma.[13]  This has created what is known as the “poverty-to-prison” pipeline.  Over the past 33 years, spending for K-12 education has increased only a third of what spending on corrections has.[14]  Further, only a little over 25% of state inmates report having earned a GED while incarcerated.[15]  Consequently, only 20% of those who are released from prison end up earning a salary of more than $15K,[16] perpetuating the “poverty-to-prison” pipeline.  Over the past two decades, 19 states have successfully decreased both imprisonment and crime rates using community approaches to crime prevention.  New Jersey saw the largest drop-in crime rates (30%) following a 37% decrease in incarceration rates.[17]  

RELATED: Mass Incarceration and Systemic Poverty

Saint Rita Offers a Model of Mentorship

Saint Rita was caught in a retributive model of justice as she married into a family at constant war with another family.  At the murder of her own husband, her in-laws and children reacted with a strong desire for revenge.  Saint Rita pleaded with her children to adopt Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation as an alternative.  Her two sons died from an illness before they could avenge their father’s death, so we do not know which path they would have ultimately chosen.  However, Saint Rita ultimately created peace by inviting her entire family to look at the issue more holistically and discover how violence only begets more violence, causing everyone in the community to suffer.  As she did in the 15th century, Saint Rita points us to a communal approach that recognizes Jesus’ message of peace, reconciliation, and healing as an alternative response to crime.  Such a message should be brought to young people long before a crime is committed.  Such a message should also be brought to those who have the power to remove the societal hurdles such as poverty and educational inequality that often contribute to influencing young people towards criminal lifestyles.  

RELATED: Saint Rita, Gun Violence, and Mass Incarceration


[1] National Institute of Health,


[3] Cornell University,

[4] Bureau of Justice Statistics, and Prison Policy Initiative,

[5] Federal Bureau of Prisons,

[6] National Institute of Health,

[7] National Institute of Health,

[8] Equal Justice Initiative,

[9] Prison Policy Initiative,

[10] National Institute of Health,

[11] The Sentencing Project,


[13] The Brookings Institute,

[14] Department of Education.  “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.” (accessed June 22, 2018

[15] The Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Education and Correctional Populations.” BJS.Gov.

[16] The Brookings Institute. “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration.”, 7 (accessed June 24, 2019

[17] Equal Justice Initiative,

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