Youth First’s Playbook for Closing Juvenile Justice Prisons

Youth First has publishedBreaking Down the Walls,” a report that provide advice about campaigning to close youth prisons based on efforts that have already yielded results in the District of Columbia and five states: Calif., Miss., La., N.Y., and Texas.

“Successful campaigns have resulted in the closure of dozens of youth prisons in all regions of the country,” the report says. “This work—the work of creating a future where no child faces imprisonment—is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”

The report hones in on six pieces of advice for would-be champions of prison closures:

  1. Expect a long haul; no successful reform has been achieved without incremental victories mixed with depressing setbacks
  2. Rely on a diverse pool of youth and families affected by incarceration to lead with their stories and opinions.
  3. Do not try and bypass the racial disparity aspect of this issue; it is present in all systems and influential in effecting change.
  4. It takes a coalition of advocates, preferably that bring different specialties to the table (communications, policy analysis, litigation, etc).
  5. Statewide reform relies on the participation of local stakeholders
  6. Harness the power of public opinion and media interest; both were instrumental in closing facilities in New York (wasted money) and Texas (sexual abuse).

Presented as just a list like this, some of that might appear obvious. But “Breaking Down Walls” does a really concise and effective job of weaving real examples in from the six successful reforms to make those recommendations more tangible.

The impact of reforms in those six systems on the national juvenile justice numbers is hard to ignore. Youth Services Insider used the Census on Juveniles in Residential Placement to find the following:

In 1997, there were 40,678 juveniles committed to state facilities in the United States. Thirty-seven percent of those commitments were in the six systems where the reforms highlighted in the report took place.

In 2013, the most recent year for which census data is available, the number of national commitments was 13,970, a decrease of 26,708. These six systems only accounted for 18 percent of commitments in 2013; they account for 47 percent of the national decrease.

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