Why Do We Still Imprison Youth?

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Photo courtesy Campaign for Youth Justice

For those of us who pay close attention to juvenile justice issues, this year kicked off with hopeful news from elected officials across the political spectrum.

In the first week of 2018, Republican governors in New Jersey and Wisconsin announced the closure of four antiquated youth prisons in their states as a move towards a more rehabilitative approach.

In March, the Columbia University Justice Lab issued findings about the “Close to Home” initiative promoted by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, passed with large bi-partisan votes of New York’s legislature, signed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, and largely implemented by Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Since its enactment in 2012, Close to Home has eliminated placement of delinquent city youth into the state’s notorious youth prisons.

And in April, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy announced that the state’s final youth prison was closed.

He declared: “The Connecticut Juvenile Training School was an ill-advised and costly relic…[that] placed young boys in a prison-like facility, making rehabilitation, healing, and growth more challenging.”

The endemic nature of atrocities in America’s youth prisons, as well as their failure to rehabilitate their charges, is well-documented. That’s why jurisdictions with Republican, Democratic and Independent leaders are closing such facilities and replacing them with robust community programming and—for the very few young people who require secure custody—small, homelike and rehabilitative facilities close to their home communities.

Far from being isolated incidents, research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found recurring or systemic maltreatment of incarcerated youth in all but five states from 1970 to 2015. In 2007, the Associated Press surveyed every facility in the country housing delinquent youth, reporting 13,000 allegations of abuse in facilities housing 46,000 youth.

In 2012, a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that one in 10 incarcerated youth reported being sexually assaulted in custody in the prior year.

When a New York City youth died in custody in a state youth prison, a US Department of Justice investigation found that “anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fistfight may result in a full prone restraint with handcuffs,” sometimes resulting in “serious injuries to youth, including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures.”

These facilities are as ineffective as they are abusive. A 2016 Harvard Kennedy School of Government article found that public safety, youth development and mental health outcomes for youth prisons are appalling, especially given their purportedly rehabilitative intent.

Young people who experience America’s youth prisons are more likely to be arrested in the future. They are also likely to have worse employment and educational outcomes, and are more prone to mental illness than their peers.

Even though we spend a national average of almost $150,000 a year to lock up each young person, he or she often emerges worse off from the system than the day of arrival in the facility.

This represents not individual problems but rather a failure of the institution-based approach to handling delinquent youth. This broken system needs to be replaced.

Fortunately, America’s juvenile justice systems are now gravitating away from the 19th Century “reform school” model of responding to youth crime to a more diversified approach. While calls to cut adult incarceration by half have grown louder, youth imprisonment has quietly declined by 54 percent nationally from 2001 to 2015.

Two-thirds of the youth prisons confining over 200 youth were closed during this period.

The new approach is working and catching on.

Since Close to Home began in 2012, delinquent youths from New York City are no longer confined in state facilities, the number of city youth in small, local facilities has declined by two-thirds, and juvenile arrests have plummeted by more than half.

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

In one of the seemingly few remaining areas of bipartisan consensus, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proclaimed in January that the state would close two of its three youth prisons and move toward smaller, localized facilities where the focus is more on rehabilitation than on custody and control.

Christie stated:

The New Jersey Training School at Jamesburg is one of the oldest, most antiquated youth prisons in the nation and the time has come to close its gates for the last time. We have an obligation to serve our youth and protect our communities, but now we will do so using a model that maximizes opportunities for personal rehabilitation and growth of developing young people.      

The former prosecutor-turned-governor is right. But despite abundant evidence that youth prisons have failed to rehabilitate young people, scores of large, locked youth prisons are still open in the U.S., where children in custody continue to experience daily atrocities.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Even when scandals emerge, too many states nonetheless cling to the status quo.

There are countless reasons to close youth prisons, and more than enough examples to show how it can be done effectively. Policymakers of all political stripes should close these factories of failure, and invest in community programs, services and opportunities for youth.

For the very few young persons who may need secure care, small, rehabilitative and therapeutic programs can fulfill the important mission of getting our most vulnerable youth back on track.

Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work, and former director of New York City probation and juvenile corrections in Washington, DC. Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Youth First Initiative.

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