A Much-Needed Alternative to Youth Prisons

If we don't incarcerate young people in conflict with the law, what do we do with them? The answer is simple: We care for and invest in our young people; resource families and communities to safely hold youth accountable; invest in each young person's success, and; address the root causes of youth crime in the communities where the youth live, all in the context of their homes and neighborhoods.
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co-authored by Jeff Fleischer, MSW, Chief Executive Officer of Youth Advocate Programs and Chair of the National Collaboration for Youth

In June, Patrick McCarthy, the president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation delivered a TED Talk in which he advocated for closing youth prisons, stating: "I believe it's long past time to close these inhumane, ineffective, wasteful factories of failure once and for all. Every one of them. We need to admit that what we're doing doesn't work, and is making the problem worse while costing billions of dollars and ruining thousands of lives."

We couldn't agree more.

If we don't incarcerate young people in conflict with the law, what do we do with them?

The answer is simple: We care for and invest in our young people; resource families and communities to safely hold youth accountable; invest in each young person's success, and; address the root causes of youth crime in the communities where the youth live, all in the context of their homes and neighborhoods.

Many juvenile justice administrators agree community-based programs are the right approach for young people in the justice system, but still maintain spending ratios that favor institutions over families and communities. According to the Justice Policy Institute, this institutional bias costs hundreds of thousands of dollars of day per youth, or $5 billion a year. Every year, taxpayers spend between eight and 21 billion dollars on indirect costs of youth incarceration, like future lost wages, lost educational opportunities and reliance on public assistance. Several states spend significant portions of their budgets sending young people to private residential treatment centers, often with poor long-term results.

Systems that redirect the dollars they currently spend on confinement into communities that send the most young people to detention, state prison or other confinement, have a better chance of achieving public safety, positive youth outcomes and racial equity.

Thats because public safety is about much more than prisons and police. It's about all the things that characterize safe neighborhoods -- access to good schools and jobs, and opportunities to learn, grow, develop and play in safe environments.

The evidence is clear that what works to achieve positive outcomes for any young person, also works for young people in the juvenile justice system: recognizing the individuality of each youth; including their families; building on their strengths; keeping them safe; knowing who connects best with them; helping them navigate difficult situations in their lives; finding opportunities for them to thrive, grow and develop, and; ensuring access to quality education and meaningful opportunities to work.

This country's institutional bias is at the heart of racial inequity in the juvenile justice system. Many communities that send the most young people to detention or prison are black and brown neighborhoods drained of resources designed to engage and help justice involved youth. Responding to this lack of resources with youth incarceration is the easy, but wrong, thing to do. These communities should be saturated with effective, culturally competent programs and resources to engage neighbors in helping their youth.

Every community and juvenile justice system in this country knows which neighborhoods and even blocks send the most kids to detention and youth prisons. That is where the redirected dollars should go to develop robust, comprehensive continuums of care that include an array of services, supports and creative interventions for young people who need them.

A comprehensive continuum of care for justice involved youth is more than stringing together a few types of alternative programs for some kids while hundreds of young people continue on to youth prison or residential placements far from their communities. Instead, a comprehensive system takes a holistic approach to youth in need before they get to the justice system and after they're there, addressing the root causes of behavior that can lead to delinquency or even youth crime. A comprehensive continuum will:

  • Ensure that kids who do not need to be in the juvenile justice system stay out of the system
  • Maintain enough services to serve almost all justice involved youth and their families in their homes, especially youth with the most complex needs. For young people with complex needs, programs should include the elements listed in our recent report, "Safely Home."
  • Intentionally focus on reducing racial and ethnic disparity in policy and practice
  • Hold youth accountable for their behavior without resorting to incarceration
  • Help youth access opportunities to give back so they can be contributors to their community, not just receivers of service, resulting in a restored sense of belonging
  • Focus interventions on the youth and his or her family and peers
  • Individualize services to meet the needs and build on the strengths of each unique young person
  • Ensure that services and supports will be available 24/7 at times when young people and their families need help the most
  • Arrange for access to job or vocational training, education and meaningful work
  • Create opportunities for young people to learn new skills and responses to negative stimuli and practice them in their community
  • Support youth to meet their obligations to pay restitution
  • Connect young people to credible messengers -- caring adults who live in a youth's community, understand the neighborhood and a youth's culture. Credible messengers are trained in youth development and establish a trusting relationship with the youth and family.

With the right investment and supports, continuums of care will enhance, not compromise public safety. An effective continuum of care works at the front end, so that youth who would ordinarily be sent to youth prison can stay safely at home with their families. It also works at the back end to bring young people currently confined in youth prisons safely home to their families and neighborhoods.

One community that created a continuum is Toledo, Ohio's Lucas County Juvenile Court, led by Judge Denise Navarre Cubbon and Juvenile Court Administrator Deborah Hodges. As we highlighted in the report "Safely Home", in 1998, Lucas County sent over 300 young people to the state's youth prisons. Last year, that number was down to 17. In a recent conversation with Ms. Hodges, we learned that number dropped even more - in the last fiscal year, Lucas County sent 10 young people to state prison.

They also led significant reductions in the county's detention population. From 2009 to the first quarter of 2014 the average daily population decreased by 72%. During this same time period, the average daily population for black youth in the Juvenile Detention Center also decreased by 71%.

To achieve these reductions, Lucas County essentially shifted from a facility-based juvenile justice system in 1998 to a community-based juvenile justice system. At the front end, Lucas county created an Assessment Center to make sure that young people who did not need to be in the system stayed out. Each youth presented to the Center is screened for an appropriate response. Lucas County also built enough services in the community so that the detention center or the state prisons were not the only places for young people to get services they needed. For kids with complex needs, they partnered with our organization, Youth Advocate Programs, to provide intensive mentoring and wraparound programs that work with youth, their families and their communities.

And rather than sending young people away to prison when the services they need did not exist, Lucas County created new services, such as a program to address the high numbers of young people - and especially kids of color - entering their courtrooms through school-based charges. The state reform efforts, Reclaim Ohio and Targeted Reclaim, which focuses on redirecting resources from facilities to community, also played a role in supporting alternatives and reducing Lucas County's juvenile population. The dollars they saved in using confinement less, enabled the County to build a strong continuum of care for juveniles in their own community.

Community work is harder than locking kids up - it takes more creativity, more dedication and requires moving beyond a "one-size-fits-all" approach. But it is what our young people and their families need to thrive, and what our communities need to be safe. Many of the youth in our care have been affected by extreme poverty, discrimination, disability, trauma and abuse, lack of early guidance and opportunity, poor schools and availability of guns and drugs. They are survivors who need support and access to their families and positive opportunities, not removal and isolation.

Yes, close youth prisons. And let's invest in our young people and their communities. Because when communities are properly resourced, anything that can be done in a youth prison can be done in the community, only better.

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