Wilderness Adventure Therapy: Alternative to Incarceration for Youth to Reduce Recidivism in Wisconsin

By Parker Jorenby

Problem Statement:

Wisconsin youth offenders recidivate at a significantly higher rate than the national average with over half of offenders returning to the Juvenile Justice System after three years. A change in the institution can help reduce this severe recidivism rate and the racial disparities experienced with the Wisconsin JJS. I advocate for the implementation of Wilderness Adventure Therapy with a focus on family connection as the alternative to the current detention and correctional facilities.

Background – “Get-Tough-on-Crime” Campaign and the Juvenile Justice 

In the 1970s, politicians promoted retributive justice through the “Get-Tough-on-Crime” campaign that rose about due to the advertised failures of rehabilitation. A campaign that empowered stricter policing, convicted more non-violent offenders, and lengthened the sentences for those convicted. The goal of the movement was to reduce crime through deterrence with the utilitarian thought process that the cost of the crime would outweigh the reward. The ramifications, however, included overcrowded prisons, unjust punishments, and an increase in recidivism rates. 

The emphasis on severe punishment, even for minor crimes, negatively impacted juveniles and did little to deter crimes. Imprisonment and longer sentences increase recidivism by 3 percent compared to community-based and shorter sentences (Andrew and Bortna 5, Jones 58). Longer sentences separate offenders from their community for a more extended period of time. Additionally, longer sentences struggle to provide resources to develop prosocial skills effective for prisoner reintegration into society. 

Youth incarcerated through the “Get-Tough-on-Crime” campaign was considered “super predators”, pursuing crime as a way of life (Dragomir 62). This view applied to non-violent and violent criminals causing each youth to receive similar punishments instead of individualized treatment. With imprisonment going on a criminal record, job prospects for post-incarcerated individuals reduce leaving more challenges to provide financially for already marginalized communities (Bortna 42). Considering that most incarcerated youth come from disadvantaged populations riddled with a lack of education, work experience, and substance abuse; the cycle of crime continues as crime becomes a rewarding alternative due to the need for self-sufficiency (Dragomir 64, Bortna 51). When the goal of the juvenile justice system is to punish, the system works well, but with a focus on rehabilitating and returning juveniles to society, the juvenile justice system needs improvement.

Rise of rehabilitation in the 2000s

At the start of the 2000s, new studies realized rehabilitation could decrease the recidivism rate when utilized by trained professionals providing therapy. Communities began realizing despite the perceived deterrence effects from harsher punishments, the retributive mindset did not decrease the rate of crime or recidivism. Programs like Scared Straight which would introduce at-danger youth to the prisons increased the recidivism rate (Bortna 442). Additionally, the overcrowding in prisons hindered therapists’ ability to provide immediate treatment (Federal Sentencing Reporter 20). With inadequate therapy for incarcerated youth, contact with the police occurred quickly after release. 

The development of a Risk Need Responsivity model allowed for individualized treatment plans to be created for youth in the juvenile justice system. Focusing on rehabilitation and the removal of “Get-Tough-on-Crime” policies led to a 50% decrease in the recidivism rate for juveniles since 2005 and a decrease in juvenile arrests (Pelletier 5. Jones 54). However, this decrease also highlights the racial disparity in the juvenile justice system.

Current Wisconsin Juvenile Justice System

In Wisconsin, judges sentence juveniles for incarceration in one of four facilities through the Department of Corrections; Lincoln Hills School for Boys, Copper Lake School for Girls, Grow Academy for boys, and Mendota Juvenile Treatment Centers. A disparity in incarceration has occurred over the last few decades where incarcerated youth hold a ratio of 15 black youth: 1 white youth making Wisconsin have the fifth-highest White-Black commitment disparity in the country (Pelletier 1, Race to Equity 8). Despite the decreases in arrest rates, the discrimination still persists as evident by the time of punishments received. With the option of correctional facilities that separate youth from their families, black youth are sentenced to these facilities more than receiving mental health support (Dragomir 62). The same is not true for white youth who receive more therapeutic treatment than imprisonment.  

Wisconsin’s JJS seemed to believe for a long time that black youth were more responsible for their delinquent behavior than white youth hence the disconnect between sentencing black youth to physical punishment and white youth to treatment. In recent years, Wisconsin has tried to revise its policy on juvenile punishment through the Second Chance Bill. The Second Chance Bill remedies the rule that all 17-year-olds be sent to adult prison and instead focuses on keeping non-violent offenders in the JJS (Race to Equity 11). However, this proposal has remained in the State Senate since 2017. These changes would reduce the recidivism rate for 17-year-olds as housing youth in adult facilities increases recidivism compared to youth facilities (Race to Equity 1). The proposed bill is still an incremental step in transforming the Wisconsin JJS from retributive justice to rehabilitative justice.

Problem with Wisconsin’s Juvenile Juvenile System

Wisconsin youth offenders recidivate at a significantly higher rate than the national average with over half of offenders returning to the JJS after three years. With a 63% recidivism rate, Wisconsin’s restorative justice plan still remains ineffective in establishing prosocial behavior for youth offenders, creating a cycle of crime that could persist into adulthood and the next generation (2017 Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health 3, Jones 54). The ineffectiveness stems from the isolation prioritized in correctional facilities and a lack of understanding that crime is an infraction on relationships within a family and community. Over the last few decades, a retributive mindset has accomplished removing children from families without reducing the crime rate or the rate of recidivism because punishment addresses symptoms of the problem and not the source. For the JJS to address this issue, psychology must be a part of the justice system as evidenced by the “get-tough-on-crime” campaign.

 The United States attempted to change punishment by introducing military-style boot camps that would instill discipline and skills into youth offenders (Bortna 438). However, the characteristics of military-style boot camps include rigorous physical training and regimented routines which are hard to simulate in everyday life. Only when a therapeutic treatment component was added to these camps did recidivism go down by 71% (Bortna 439).  When the goal of the JJS is to rehabilitate, a therapeutic component done by professionals must be involved in either the prison or alternative sentence.

The economic challenges presented through crime affect each part of the community as the costs to maintain prisons, correctional facilities, law enforcement, courts, etc. require an extensive budget. For the United States, the annual cost of crime is 1.7 trillion dollars which includes indirect and direct costs of crime (Dragomir 65). Indirect costs include damage done to the victim, also the loss of the sole money-maker for a family, and the resulting crimes that come about after encountering the criminal justice system. For Wisconsin alone, they spent 162.8 million dollars on the JJS in 2017 (Pelletier 2, Bortna 43). This money goes into maintaining the correctional facilities and training the staff. Recent reforms for Wisconsin’s JJS have led to the closing of two correctional facilities, Ethan Allen School for Boys and Southern Oaks Girls School, and the youth housed in these facilities were sent to more community-run services. With the maintenance of these facilities coming from taxpayers, they are not cost-effective solutions to the juvenile justice system.

Lastly, the current use of Wisconsin’s JJS maintains the cycle of crime and racial disparity. Despite the drops in arrest rates for youth in the last decade, white arrest rates are falling faster than that of minority groups (National Series 13). Currently, 67% of those imprisoned are minorities in the United States (Pelletier 8, 2017 Wisconsin Office of the Juvenile 1, National Series 11, Dragomir 61). This ratio does not accurately portray the distribution in the general population. With minorities having a higher chance of experiencing contact with the justice system, the Wisconsin JJS keeps minorities in this system by regularly subjecting them to physical labor instead of therapeutic treatment. With 70% of juveniles incarcerated presenting mental disorders, the focus must be on treating the source of antisocial behavior (Gagnon 1). Addressing the source requires understanding crime as an infraction on relationships, the adverse childhood experiences contributing to the personality of an offender, and the need to provide sustainable skills to help youth reenter society as functioning members. By addressing the source, the role of the juvenile justice system can reduce the recidivism rate and the racial disparity.

Possible Solutions in the Works Beyond Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Smaller Facilities, Closer to Home

In recent years, states incorporated new rehabilitative strategies that effectively decrease the recidivism rate. Many strategies call for smaller facilities, closer to home that allows for family visitation and interaction. In Mississippi, the juvenile justice system focuses on small non-prison-like placements with individualized group therapy options (Race to Equity 10). Their treatment instills skills into youth they can use when they return to society. Additionally, Mississippi’s JJS specializes in after imprisonment care to help facilitate proper reintegration. Their model with a smaller budget than the majority of other states has led to a 49% decrease for violent crimes, 70% for property crimes, and 76% for drug-related offenses (National Report Statistics). These reductions came with the priority in mental health services and family-based group therapy because these services provided improvement in relationships and prosocial skills. Additionally, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice offers specialized therapy for youth experiencing similar problems whether it is substance abuse, impulse-control, or empathy (Narvey 51). The specialized therapy also allows flexibility in the length of sentencing depending on the performance of the youth. 

These alternatives to imprisonment focused on switching from large state-run facilities to community-based facilities saving states’ money through different funding. Florida saves 2.6 million dollars per career offender when they stop offending by the age of 18 (Romani 146). With the reduction in recidivism, fewer juveniles commit crimes after 18. Additionally, traditional sentences imprison drug offenders for long times without providing the means to treat their addiction. Traditional prison ends up costing twice as much as multisystemic treatment because the cycle of crime continues through traditional prison (Romani 146). Even with a disagreement in goals for the justice system, the savings in money will be beneficial for the rest of the community.


Another alternative to imprisonment is paying restitution. Restitution with information to help the offender understand the weight of their crimes has increased the probability of someone paying their fine (Ruback 789). With the information given to the offender, offenders are encouraged to pay their restitution. In reality, this alternative saves law enforcement money as well because, for every one dollar spent on sending out this information, they receive six dollars in restitution (Ruback 798). A concern arises with the financial burden restitution places on families of offenders because offenders may turn to crime simply to pay off what they owe. But when information is provided on where the money is going, more motivation exists to pay off the debt to the community. While an understanding of the cost an offender’s action had on the community, restitution does not teach the offender prosocial skills to help them reintegrate into society.

Proposed Solution:

Wilderness Adventure Therapy (WAT) is an alternative that encompasses the improvement of building relationships, confronting youth trauma, and developing trust, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Wisconsin should utilize WAT as its main alternative for non-violent offenders as it combines aspects of other proposed solutions. The goal of WAT is to provide experiential activities in group therapy while in the outdoors (Jones 54). This treatment dates back to the early 1900s where psychiatric patients would leave the institutions to experience the natural world (Jones 56, Brubeck 49). Immense health benefits were found when immersing patients in the wilderness for a few weeks allowing them to develop teamwork skills while engaging with therapists in informal settings. Youth would converse with their peers, therapists, and other adults outside of traditional group therapy settings promoting skills they can utilize in their everyday life (Becker 55). Interacting with adults outside of group therapy removes the challenges other programs have like boot camps. The rigorous, regimented, routine was hard to replicate in day-to-day life, but with wilderness therapy the schedule is flexible.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect numerous youth that commit crimes. ACE affects self-control, anxiety, and depression (Narvey 50). Removing the trauma is not possible, but there is a possibility to mitigate the effects of ACE. According to Narvey, large improvements in empathy over the course of treatment may mitigate the negative effects of ACE  because of compounding interaction with family, therapists, and peers in the program (60). Through this mitigation, youth build prosocial skills that encourage them to find alternatives to crime. Unlike the current model where youth are viewed as dangerous individuals, this treatment views them as a vulnerable population (Dragomir 71). The JJS would be practicing the same kind of empathy that it is trying to instill in the younger generation.

Wilderness Adventure Therapy has already seen some community-based implementation through the Wisconsin Wilderness Therapy program but should be more widespread as the main alternative to imprisonment for non-violent offenders. The treatment is individualized and versatile for substance abuse, depression, and robbery (Becker 52). Additionally, family involvement can be incorporated into the treatment to repair any damage from an infraction on that relationship. Community-based and family-based treatments have increased effectiveness for marginalized racial and ethnic groups (Dragomir 69). By making WAT the alternative to imprisonment, youth offenders from marginalized communities may receive the mental health treatment and skill development necessary to break the cycle of crime. The effectiveness of WATs versus other therapy is a 22% reduction in recidivism in the first twelve months (Jones 57). This reduction only supports the need for additional therapeutic services like Wilderness Adventure Therapy. The last thing WAT can help with is to connect youth with a community post-therapy based on the practical skills they received during their time (Jones 57). This would pair with aftercare allowing youth a support network. These support networks improve relations for youth reducing their willingness to commit a crime.


For the Wisconsin community to decrease the cost of running their juvenile justice system, reduce their racial disparity, and have youth that encounter law enforcement only encounter them once, Wilderness Adventure Therapy should be the alternative to correctional facilities and detention centers. Utilize examples like the Mississippi Juvenile Justice System that promotes smaller facilities with individualized treatments. Demonstrate an understanding that crime is not done by “super predators”, but by youth experiencing hardships. By shifting the punitive mindset to a rehabilitative mindset, Wisconsin can remove itself as the fifth-highest state in White-Black racial disparity for youth incarceration. By shifting this mindset, justice to these youth, their families, and their communities can be achieved.


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