Youth Prisons Don’t Work. Here’s What Does.

4 minute read

Mishi Faruqee is the National Field Director of the Youth First Initiative

October is Youth Justice Action Month, so let’s take stock of what we’ve learned about our juvenile justice system just this year.

About 50,000 youth are caught in a system that disproportionately imprisons African Americans and Latinos. Some teens, including Dequan Jackson, are kept behind bars not because they are a danger to society but because they cannot afford court fees. Others experience appalling treatment: just last month in Kentucky, staff allegedly stood idly by as a 16-year-old had a seizure and died in custody. Far too often, juvenile offenders are housed in facilities—like Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills, which is under federal investigation for abuse—that could leave them worse off.

These stories are heartbreaking, but they need not be disheartening. Coupled with awareness of the problems should be awareness of the tremendous progress being made to change the way our juvenile justice system operates. Advocates across the country are hard at work to create more effective, humane alternatives that will help young offenders stay out of the criminal justice system as adults.

In response to calls for change, legislators and governors in states including Virginia, Kansas and Connecticut have committed to closing some of the worst youth prison facilities in their states, while reinvesting in community-based solutions that actually rehabilitate youth.

In Virginia, RISE for Youth advocacy group has earned bipartisan support in the state legislature to close massive, outdated youth prisons and reinvest the money saved into more effective community-based programs. Advocates are working to ensure the closure of other youth prison complexes and instead offer young Virginians a real shot at rehabilitation and a brighter future.

A similar effort is underway in Kansas, where Kansans United for Youth Justice helped ensure the passage of comprehensive reform legislation to reduce the use of incarceration and redirect funds to evidence- and community-based approaches. The Kansas Department of Corrections has also announced plans to close the Larned youth facility, one of the state’s two youth prisons.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has similarly pledged to close the state’s youth prison, and the advocacy group Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance is working to ensure that a plan is in place to offer community-based care and rehabilitation to young people moving forward. And following recent reports of sexual assault at the Lincoln Hills facility in Irma, Wisc., Youth Justice Milwaukee is working with allies to provide recommendations for bringing local youth home.

Youth prisons are an outdated approach to rehabilitation that too often includes physical and sexual abuse, neglect and isolation. These facilities tear young people away from the schools, families and faith communities where they can find the support and services they need for success. Instead of nurturing responsible citizens, youth prisons risk systemically traumatizing youth and leaving them less able to find employment, have healthy relationships, get an education and lead productive lives.

This system is not just failing our young people and their families; it’s also incredibly expensive for taxpayers. In Virginia, it costs $142,000 per year to incarcerate just one young person. And 75% of incarcerated young people end up back in the system within a few years, which exacerbates the human and economic costs. Meanwhile, Youth Advocate Programs which offer services in homes and community settings cost significantly less—about $27,000 a year—and allow youth to stay arrest-free throughout their participation.

States from coast to coast could see a major reduction in costs associated with the juvenile justice system if youth prisons—which eat up billions of dollars each year—were shuttered in favor of alternatives that rehabilitate youth while promoting public safety. Fortunately, some elected officials are beginning to understand this reality, and increased public pressure can help swell their ranks.

We have a real opportunity to build on the progress being made in these states in every jurisdiction across the country. We owe it to young people and their families to invest in community-based interventions that actually work. The models are there. It’s time to replicate and build on them to give young people access to services and supports that will keep us all safer. We can’t afford not to.

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