The End of Youth Prisons

Posted by Dan Edwards

Nov 2, 2016 1:29:58 PM

Leaders in the field come together to demand the end of youth incarceration 

It may be that we look back on Oct. 21, 2016, as the day we finally made a public commitment to close youth prisons once and for all.

At a release event for the Future of Youth Justice report, the call for ending the use of juvenile prisons was loud and clear. While it’s true that it may not be tomorrow, next year or even this decade, this day marks a pivotal moment in the fight for juvenile justice. 

Changes have been coming for years. It was not too long ago that the pervasive attitude towards juvenile delinquents was that they were remorseless superpredators who were unchangeable and needed to be locked up because, of course, ‘nothing worked.’ Slowly, that perception has shifted in tandem with the rise of home- and community-based programs like Multisystemic Therapy (MST). Over the past twenty years, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of youth incarcerated for their misdeeds. Many more youth are diverted safely away from placement and their rehabilitation is far more successful.  As a result, there is a concerted shift in public sentiment. Juvenile “delinquents” are, in large part, young people who have gotten off track and need support, not prison uniforms, shackles, and steel bars.  

It has become obvious that there are alternatives to the isolation and inhumanity of youth prisons, where abuse and trauma are endemic. In fact, it is now so obvious that many who have dedicated their careers and lives to reforming juvenile justice have stood up and demanded that we close youth lock-ups for good.

The time to do away with juvenile prisons is now

Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and co-author of the report, said, “The time has come to accomplish what we’ve all known needed to happen. We need to—and we can—close every last youth prison in the country.” Liz Ryan, director of Youth First and founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice, backs this up by saying, “Youth prisons are spending an enormous amount of our resources, roughly $5 billion a year, that could be freed up for other, more effective, community-based alternatives.”

To be sure, closing these prisons does not imply that there are no young people who need and require some kind of secure confinement. But, according to the report, “closing these institutions would enable reinvestment of the savings into a system marked by rigorous in-home programming, and, for the small number of those who need to be incarcerated, small, homelike facilities that are close enough to the youth’s home communities to maintain and encourage family involvement.” 

Indeed, what stands before us is a rare, “once in a generation” opportunity where there is public support, bipartisan political support, and feasible solutions that are affordable, safe and scalable. One recommendation is to expand proven community-based and family-centered programs. Those mentioned include Treatment Foster Care Oregon, Multisystemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy. This not only gives judges better options to match youth needs with effective programs, but reduces the reliance on secure settings where youth are apart from their family and their community. As highlighted in the report, the juvenile-justice system must be reformed to provide services and supports that connect young people to school, prosocial activities, peers, and job opportunities.

When we reduce the number of young people in detention, reform the system that remains and replace prisons with smaller programs that are not ‘correctional’ in nature, we can reinvest the dollars saved into expanding available options and conducting more research on what works. As the authors of the report said, “We know what to do. Do we have the will to do it?”

Read the full report to learn more.

To learn more about MST, a proven alternative to incarceration, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform