It’s time to shutter all the nation’s youth prisons.
That was the opening message delivered by youth correctional administrators from around the country who launched a new lobbying group for juvenile justice reform Wednesday.
But speakers at the two-day founding conference of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ), held at Columbia University, said accelerating the growing national movement to close juvenile detention facilities was just a critical first step in rethinking how the U.S. justice system deals with young people who fall afoul of the law.
“The true identity crisis is within the system,” argued Clinton Lacey, Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and a member of YCLJ.
Such abuses are bound to continue as long as the practice of confining justice-involved youth to detention facilities remains the standard response to youthful misbehavior, said Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner who now heads Columbia University’s Justice Lab.
“Every time we think of locking kids up, or building big facilities, part of the conversation should be people who have run them saying, ‘No, stop, don’t do this. There are better ways to [address youth crime],’ ” Schiraldi said.
Schiraldi, who is also co-chair of YCLJ’s steering committee, told administrators and advocates gathered for the two-day conference at Columbia’s School of Social Work that corrections administrators needed to play a larger role in the debate.
In a profession dominated by ideas of punishment and control, the 48 administrators who agreed to form the new group plan to leverage their diverse experiences in state, county, and local governments to argue that youth prisons are cruel, developmentally harmful, ineffective at teaching correct behavior, and wildly cost-ineffective.
But enacting youth justice also means funneling the cost savings back into community-based support programs for at-risk youth and marginalized communities, such as youth and family counseling, educational and vocational programs, and wholesome recreation and leadership programs, the administrators agreed.
Supported by Columbia’s Justice Lab, the YCLJ will provide messaging support to local youth justice advocates and spread its expertise among governments and justice system administrators.
“We hope to leverage the collective experience, wisdom and knowledge of the ultimate ‘system insiders’ to be a resource to the field, one that can really help accelerate and advance the conversations nationwide to reimagine youth justice systems,” said Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, project director at the Justice Lab’s Youth Justice Initiatives.
“At the heart of that vision is creating and investing in capacity that centers youth, families, and communities.She continued: Ultimately, our hope is to get to a point where communities become the default for caring for their people, instead of the alternative.”
“My Story is Not Unique”
Jarrell Daniels cut a sharp figure in his crisp grey suit and dark-rimmed glasses—and he has a résumé to match. A researcher at the Columbia University Center for Justice, he was the keynote speaker at the YCLJ launch.
Yet he quickly noted that his accolades and lifestyle contrast with how he grew up in the Bronx and his experiences as an incarcerated youth.
“For many of us who were born into poverty and hopelessness, our paths seemed limited [by] crime, substance abuse, and extreme acts of desperation that we had to commit with the honest hope of surviving to tomorrow,” said Daniels, founder of the Justice Ambassadors Youth Council.
“But when I look in the mirror today, I see [numerous academic and professional achievements]. I see all that and a man who spent a quarter of his life in state prison—six years to be exact, starting as a teenager on Rikers Island for an act that nearly cost a man his life.”
But while his story has not ended there, that fateful day was not the beginning of his troubles.
At 14, he and his mother fled an abusive household into New York City’s shelter system. Soon after, on a bus home from high school, assailants boarded the bus and jumped the passengers. As the bus came to a swerving halt, he fled to a nearby convenience shop, where the police drew guns on him and falsely accused him of being an assailant himself.
“Almost immediately, I emerged a new person,” he said. “I was completely involved in my identity as an honors student, but I was now viewed as a teenage delinquent, a reputation I had done nothing to deserve.
“My innocence would never be returned to me.”
Due to his arrest, he was expelled from high school. After pinballing between different school systems while navigating life in the shelters, he dropped out of school altogether at age 15. The New York City Administration for Children’s Services launched an investigation but did not intervene or offer support.
Three years after his initial arrest, the charges would be dismissed, but not before wreaking irreparable damage to his teenage years.
Daniels adapted to his new life in the streets, one where he recalls he only felt safe with a gun on his hip. And one day, after taking a blade to the face from attackers in the street, he found himself pulling the trigger.
“Thankfully, this man did not lose his life,” he reflected. “But in a way, I did.”
He would spend more than half a decade caged in the state prison system with anger management courses that did not teach restraint and vocational classes that failed to educate or prepare.
He gleaned the most wisdom and learning from men sentenced to life in prison, who instilled in him a newfound purpose as an “ambassador [of the incarcerated] to the free world.”
Toward the end of his grueling stay, he received an offer to join a university class from inside the Queensboro Correctional Facility, with classmates from outside. The goal of the course was to rely on the expertise of incarcerated youth to develop recommendations transforming New York’s youth justice system.
While the opportunity seemed flattering, it left room for resentment.
He said he regularly wonders: “Why was my first opportunity to have a conversation with a city official while I was sitting in state prison? Why not before my first arrest, or before I was homeless and hopeless?”
The Justice Ambassadors Youth Council is intended to partner city officials with justice-involved youth to brainstorm methods of offering more youth the lifeline that the justice system failed to provide him.
‘Kinder, Gentler’ Approach
Yet YCLJ believes that the failures of the youth justice system, which traumatized and interrupted Daniels’s life, are not isolated flaws in an otherwise efficient machine. Instead, they argue, youth prisons are fundamentally inadequate environments for youth rehabilitation.
Lacey, of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services acknowledged that many prisons are moving to “kinder, gentler, smarter, more evidence-based, and decent” approaches that seek to improve the conditions inside the prisons without challenging their very existence wholesale.
Nevertheless, he added, “We need to be careful that even if we can move from our thirst to punish that we don’t become intoxicated with our nicer, prettier, better systems and places of confinement. [That’s] not our final frontier.”
“The dirty little secret is that we can’t [rehabilitate],” Lacey continued. “The notion that we can provide the ultimate healing and growth in our ecosystem is false, so the healing, development, and ‘rehabilitation’ must happen in community settings.
“Our research tells us that. […] The identity shift helps us see that the answer is in the community. An investment has to be made to build a continuum of care.”
It’s for these reasons that Lacey argued that closing youth prisons does not minimize the importance of accountability or restitution to victims.
In his view, and that of YCLJ and its partners, youth prisons never met those obligations in the first place. Rather than stubbornly insisting upon failed models, they argue that governments would be wise to heed alternative solutions that provide better community outcomes at a lower cost to the taxpayer.
A Georgia Gavel
Chief Judge Steven Teske, of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, GA, spoke about statewide efforts to close youth prisons and reinvest captured funds in community-based support services.
In fact, Georgia has closed five of its youth facilities while reducing felony filings by 64 percent since localities began implementing the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in 2003. JDAI is a resource network providing best practices and project oversight to help jurisdictions incarcerate incrementally fewer youth.
Meanwhile, since 2002, Clayton County has seen a 68 percent decline in commitments to state custody and a 62 percent reduction in commitments of youth of color. Georgia has seen a total decrease of 57 percent over the same span.
Perhaps most interestingly, while commitments are down, Georgia has seen a simultaneous 82 percent decline in arrests since the JDAI began.
Based on Judge Teske’s figures, it would be impossible to say that locking up fewer youth has led to more arrests and felonies in Georgia and Clayton County, respectively.
And he has plenty of incremental ideas on how to persuade reticent lawmakers to get on board with sweeping changes to their youth justice systems.
“In a red state like Georgia, which is very conservative and ‘tough-on-crime,’ it really comes down to two things: helping your policymakers and legislators understand that the two things they care most about, public safety and money, you can increase public safety with less cost,” the judge said.
”[You do that] by helping them understand what works to redirect and prevent young people from falling into these cracks that these systems have created.”
Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern and contributing writer. Readers’ comments are welcome.