The hardest time of year may be the holiday season for tens of thousands of juveniles locked up in detention centers or group homes. Some youthful offenders may have a parent in prison, while others were raised by grandparents who physically aren’t able to make the trip or can’t afford it. Many states across the U.S. try to make it a bit more cheerful for these young people who are away from their families.

Since 1937, the Oklahoma Santa Claus Commission spreads cheer by giving away a holiday stocking filled with candy and stationery, body wash, and a $9 gift card. The staff also distributes holiday cards, and throws parties.

Tierney Tinnin, deputy communications director of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs noted that these gestures provide a sense of normalcy in the holiday season. She said, “It helps put offenders on the path to right decisions, so they will be a great asset to the community when they come out.”

Gift-giving fits with a broader trend in some juvenile justice systems to replace the adult prison model with a more positive culture.

James Bueche, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice said, “The more we try to normalize these kids, the better the outcome. If you treat them as less than human, that’s the way they’re going to be.”

The Spirit of Giving

Across America, state, local and private detention and residential centers, as well as faith based and local support groups, provide gifts or holiday meals to teens who are in custody. What makes Oklahoma’s gift program different the others, is that it’s required by law and funded by the state.

Maryland has a different approach. Juveniles can earn a pass based on good behavior to go home to celebrate the holidays. Some residential facilities in the U.S. put up  holiday trees and let the juveniles make decorations and toys to use as gifts. Others offer religious services and serve holiday meals to young people.

Wayne Bear, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services said, “I think the facilities around the country do a really good job of trying to create a supportive atmosphere. But it’s not home.”

Duffle Bags Are Dignified

In Oklahoma, they pass out a Kelly green duffle bags which cost $12 apiece. The duffle bag are considered by many teens in custody as great gifts. When released from custody, these young people often leave straight from court to their home. In the past, they would often have to carry their possessions in a trash bag issued by the court. The duffle bags represent a more dignified way to leave.

Another View Entirely 

Research demonstrates that  incarceration of lower-risk teen offenders leads to higher recidivism rates, For many, incarceration is increasingly seen as a last resort. According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the number of youth held in residential facilities across America has dropped by over half, from 108,000 in 2000 to 50,000 in 2014.

Today, many advocacy groups are lobbying to reform the juvenile justice system and fighting for the closure of institutions. Tamar Birckhead, a juvenile justice law professor at the University of North Carolina and visiting professor at Yale University said, “Prisons for kids are not effective.” But, according to Ms. Birckhead, in the interim, if kids are locked up, states should ensure that families have transportation to visit their incarcerated children.

For the teens, a party with family “would feel ‘normal’ to them, according to Ms. Birckhead. It would also help to reinforce that they have not been exiled from the community.

Brenda Padavil, public affairs specialist with the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said, “It’s important for people to remember these kids are also citizens. They’re members of the community.”