In a sign of the nation’s rapid rethinking of the justice system prompted by protests against racism and police brutality, dozens of elected prosecutors, corrections officials and probation chiefs have called for all youth prisons to be shut down. They described the lockups as “ineffective, inefficient and inhumane.”
The open statement, posted online and announced at a virtual news conference Thursday, goes beyond pushing for “the closure of all youth prisons in the country.” The law enforcement officials also want to see greater reliance on services and support for young people caught up in the justice system. They recommend those who cannot safely remain with family be placed in “small, rehabilitative, home-like facilities.”
The justice officials are also calling on local jurisdictions to halt any new youth prison admissions and to increase releases for those currently locked up during the coronavirus pandemic. No specific timelines were noted Thursday.
“As professionals charged with promoting the public’s safety and well-being, rehabilitating young people and seeking justice, the time has come for us to speak out and oppose the continued operation of these facilities,” they wrote. “Our current approach too often leaves youth further traumatized and less able to pursue a productive and positive adult future, largely because we continue to rely on archaic, dangerous, adult-style correctional institutions – youth prisons – as the anchor of our system. These failures leave our communities less safe.”
The statement released Thursday was signed by 32 elected prosecutors. It included high-profile progressives like Lawrence Krasner of Philadelphia and Chesa Boudin of San Francisco, as well as district attorneys from large and small communities from Maine, Alabama, Kansas and Hawaii.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has led the charge among top elected officials debating the next steps for large-scale warehousing of youth offenders. In May, Newsom called for an end to that state’s Division of Juvenile Justice and a shuttering of the state’s remaining three youth prisons – a plan that still needs to be approved by the Legislature. The annual cost to run those facilities is estimated to be more than $335,000 per youth.
The DAs are joined in their call to end youth imprisonment by 42 current and former youth corrections and probation leaders who belong to Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice. That coalition drafted the open statement with the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, which brings together newly elected local prosecutors to “move beyond incarceration-driven approaches.”
“We often just have a hammer,” said Santa Cruz County Chief Probation Officer Fernando Giraldo, referring to the over-reliance on youth prisons. “You have a hammer, you are going to find a lot of nails.”
Nationwide, roughly 15,000 people under 18 were held last year in long-term secure facilities for youth or in adult prisons and jails, according to the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. But there is little evidence young people emerge better off than when they went in, or less prone to criminality. A 2010 research review found that the system “does not result in preventing future crime,” and might increase the likelihood of reoffending. A large majority of those detained have also likely experienced trauma, according to numerous studies.
The law enforcement officials Thursday highlighted a growing body of research showing “that young people have not fully developed the capacity for impulse control, empathy, and judgment necessary to avoid bad choices and potentially harmful behaviors.” And they noted that as they mature, most youth will “age out” of the years they engage in crime.
Danna, an 18-year-old who was released from incarceration in Wisconsin four months ago, following charges of armed robbery, joined the Thursday news conference online to echo the national call for youth justice.
She said she’s spent most of her teens in the Copper Lake School, a juvenile correctional facility for girls, where conditions grew worse over time.
“They took away my life, my teenage life,” said Danna, who requested her last name be withheld. “I did what I did; that’s not an excuse for what I did. But I think I needed a stable family and structure, I was already going through a lot.”
Instead, she told online viewers, she got sent to prison, where she suffered mental, physical and emotional abuse. Encouraging reforms and vowing to be a part of the sweeping societal change, she concluded: “I don’t want nobody going through what I went through.”
Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, described the significance of the message from law enforcement professionals whose job it is to curtail crime and prosecute those believed to be guilty.
“It is a unique, significant moment to see corrections leaders and elected prosecutors coming together and taking on the need to dismantle a system and an approach their predecessors have been responsible for perpetuating,” she said. “We hope many of them will now lift this issue up and become champions for change in their own communities.”
The Thursday statement was issued alongside the Washington, D.C-based Justice Policy Institute’s new report, called “Sticker Shock,” which found many facilities nationwide spending more than $200,000 a year for every youth locked up. New York’s sticker shock was the most astounding in the report. It led the country with its per-person cost of roughly $892,000 annually in its most-secure long-term youth facilities.
Early last decade, after a string of scandals and abuse cases, the state closed 26 facilities. Since 2014, it has shuttered two more, leaving the state with six higher-security youth facilities, according to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.
“We can absolutely get more bang for our buck investing in alternatives, rather than continuing to fund failed youth jails,” said San Francisco DA Boudin in a phone interview. “This is an area where the governor has tremendous discretion. We also need action at the local level from county governments.”
Last year, local officials voted to shut down the city’s 150-bed juvenile hall by the end of 2021, which, according to reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle, is typically less than one-third full, pushing the annual cost of incarceration per child to $374,000 in 2018.
Shelter-in-place orders during the coronavirus pandemic have corresponded with a steady drop in the number of youth arrested across the state and nation, on top of decades of plunging youth crime numbers. And with fixed costs for each facility, that means the daily cost per youth in the remaining beds goes up – no matter how empty the facility.
Prosecutor David Clegg, recently elected in upstate New York’s Ulster County and a signer of the statement released Thursday, said the nearly $900,000 the state spends annually for one detained youth could be better spent to prevent youth crime.
“Can you imagine what could be done to support youth in the community if the money were applied to community programs and increasing support of everything our youth need, like housing, job training, educational opportunity?” said Clegg, who was among those signing the statement released Thursday. “I think we could do a much better job than keeping youth incarcerated.”
Correction: Aug. 1, 2020. A previous version of this article noted 31 prosecutors signed the letter. There were 32 prosecutors who signed it.