Community Alternatives to 'Toxic' Youth Prisons


Not a week goes by without a headline in a newspaper somewhere in the U.S. citing horrific conditions in a “training school,” a polite euphemism for youth prison.

The stories feature cite kids at such “schools” being subjected to physical abuse, including the use of inhumane restraints, pepper spray, and sexual abuse while in care. Young people are described as being placed in isolation, often excessive isolation, which is tantamount to solitary confinement.

Even with overwhelming evidence that youth prisons are toxic, costly and produce worse outcomes for youth, states continue invest more than $5 billion a year—$88,000 per youth—to incarcerate youth.

Author Nell Bernstein’s latest book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison underscores the profound intransigence of our nation towards changing the “training school” model.

“In the long view,” she wrote. “There is nothing – neither investigation, litigation, monitoring, nor oversight; not public censure, court order, or the mandates of the U.S. Constitution – powerful enough to stem the brutality that is part of daily life inside our nation's juvenile prisons, short of the courage to close the places down.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that our nation did muster the political will to change the flawed and dangerous “training school” model.

If we stopped investing in youth prisons and instead invested resources in community-based alternatives to incarceration, we could produce much better outcomes for children, according to Safely Home , a report authored by Shaena Fazal and released today by the Youth Advocate Program’s Policy and Advocacy Center.

Safely Home features a handful of programs—bright spots—that work effectively with youth in their own communities instead of sending them to youth prisons or other out-of-home placements.

The programs highlighted are in states as diverse as Ohio, Alabama and New York. They cost $75 per day on average, in contrast to the $241 per day we spend to incarcerate a youth according to the Justice Policy Institute.

Research by the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center shows that these community-based alternative programs have a substantially lower recidivism rate than youth prisons.

The featured community-based programs have a dozen core elements in common that make them so effective and successful with youth. These elements include individualized services, a family focus, a strengths-based approach, culturally competent services, available and flexible services, youth and family involvement, and opportunities for civic engagement and employment for youth.

The programs accept all kids and have a no-refuse policy as well as demonstrating unconditional caring through a no-eject policy. The bright spots give us hope that there is another and substantially more effective way to support youth. Yet few states utilize these programs. The good news is that states already have the resources to do what works; they just need to invest their resources in a different way.

Instead of locking up so many youth in youth prisons, states should instead invest resources in effective community-based alternatives to incarceration.States should create financial disincentives for incarcerating youth to stop the flow of youth into youth prisons such as Reclaim Ohio and Redeploy Illinois.

They should place limits on the types of offenses for which children can be placed in youth prisons such as California that only permits confinement of youth adjudicated for serious violent offenses.

Ultimately, states should cease the ineffective and often barbaric use of “training schools” and close these youth prisons.

EDITORS NOTE: See TCR tomorrow for a Q&A chat with author Nell Bernstein

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ. She welcomes comments from readers.

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