It’s time to close this nation’s youth prisons. They don’t serve their purpose: keeping our neighborhoods safe and helping young people turn their lives around. They fail to fulfill this core mission despite costing $150,000 per youth per year.
In New York State, starting in 2008, we closed 26 juvenile jails. This came after Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, the state Inspector General, and the United States Department of Justice each found evidence that children were subject to abuse and violence, and denied services for which they were legally entitled.
Yet, far too many youth prisons remain open nationwide. They house nearly 50,000 children — the largest population of incarcerated youth of any nation on the planet.
Research suggests New York wasn’t alone in failing these kids: Recidivism studies consistently find that 70 to 80 percent of these children are arrested again following their release from youth prisons. Research also shows they are more likely to achieve positive outcomes and successfully transition into adulthood when served in home-like community-based programs.
We and 49 of our colleagues who have spearheaded the transformation of juvenile justice in 18 states see these findings as a tipping point. Toward that end, today we launched the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ) at an organizing conference at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Drawing on our experiences and recent research on adolescent development, we are outlining a new vision of youth justice that shifts away from the punitive prison model, toward an approach that centers youth and families in their own communities.
Through YCLJ members, policymakers and advocates working in states, counties and cities across the country will have access to a diverse group of experts with knowledge and experience in successfully closing youth prisons and creating community capacity. The work involves listening to youth and their families and communities, and creating neighborhood programs and supports. It also involves investing in small, home-like, rehabilitative facilities for the small number of youth for whom public safety demands an out-of-home placement.
YCLJ will provide the critical support needed for local stakeholders to manage the challenges that are sure to come their way. We understand these challenges from our experience transforming New York’s juvenile justice system.
Surprisingly, the history of child abuse and violence in these youth prisons alone did not provide us with the leverage we needed to close them and transform our juvenile justice systems. Staff, who for decades had been trained to manage these prisons using an adult correctional model, could not accept that it did not work, and, indeed, had never worked.
Meanwhile, legislators, who relied on these prisons for economic development in their poor, rural districts could never imagine shutting them down — even if they were empty.
However, with the backdrop of the Great Recession and some creative thinking, we generated the political capital needed to shutter a large number of juvenile jails in this country at an unprecedented pace. And we changed state law, so that no child from New York City would ever see the inside of a state youth prison ever again.
We accomplished this by visiting places like Missouri, Florida and Wayne County, Michigan, where officials were already actively working to transform the “old approach” to youth prisons and moving youth to community settings.
Ten years later, the knowledge we gleaned from these visits and our colleagues has reaped dividends for children, families and neighborhoods across New York City. A recent Columbia University case study found children in the Close to Home initiative have far better outcomes in terms of education, family engagement and connections to services in their own communities after release. More significantly, juvenile crime has dropped. When compared with the rest of New York State, which still sends children to state-run youth prisons, juvenile crime dropped by twice as much.
So, while youth prisons are an utter failure in fulfilling their mission to keep our neighborhoods safe, there is a model that works, at a significantly lower fiscal and social cost.
Ultimately, this is why 51 of us decided it was time to organize our informal national network into Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice — to bring the voice of youth corrections administrators to the forefront of a renewed national movement to close America’s remaining youth prisons. We know that young people thrive more in their home communities than in faraway lockups, and we know how to help systems redesign the right way.
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