The Long Road to Closing Youth Prisons

Posted by Dan Edwards

Jul 5, 2017 8:45:30 AM

Fight for alternatives to locking kids up. Fight for evidence-based programs.

It’s often said that if a young person ends up in prison, it’s a sign that the “system” failed somewhere along the way. Early warning signs were missed, help was not available or it came too late. Often, good people and good programs were simply not available due to lack of funds.

Is there really a lack of funds, or are available funds just being spent the wrong way?

While many of us are aware of the great work that folks do within state departments of juvenile justice—as probation or parole officers, administrators, researchers and support staff—most departments are also sadly underfunded. And of the funds that they do receive, roughly half the budget (or more) for most is spent locking up kids. Last year, for example, Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice spent 48 percent of its approximately $200-million budget on detention and correctional centers. In Florida, $100 million more was spent on incarceration than on prevention. 

And departments of juvenile justice are not alone. Other child-serving agencies such as child-protective services and mental health almost always spend more on the “deep end” (foster care, psychiatric hospitalizations) than they do on the front end (prevention and early intervention).

How can we tip the scale?

When I first came to Charleston to interview with MST Services in January 1997 I remember hearing Scott Henggeler share his disruptive vision about “tipping the scale” so that we upend business as usual. If implemented well and for the right kids, communities that use top-tier, community-based intervention programs like MST could stop spending so much at the deep end and so little on prevention. He argued that with some “common-sense interventions,” society could spend a lot more on prevention and early intervention, and very little at the back end (where it is often very clear that we as a society have failed to intervene effectively before now/likely missed many of the early warning signs that a youth and family needed help).

The vision is clear, but the work is not easy. Part of the challenge is introducing evidence-based programs as alternatives to incarceration. The other part is closing the facilities that house (read: that incarcerate) youth so that funds can be redirected elsewhere.

Earlier this year, I attended a convening in D.C. where the vision of closing youth prisons was discussed by those who have done it. Lived that experience. And they shared the hard lessons learned—the personal sacrifices made, the career choices made and the long hours put in that were necessary to accomplish that goal. Check out a summary. See also #NoKidsinPrison.

While listening to the participants describe their experiences, it occurred to me that the most difficult aspects of this work include (and where we, the evidence-based community, are today in achieving that vision): 

  • creating and testing viable alternatives to the deep end 
  • making sure those alternatives work in the real world
  • persuading people to invest in those alternatives (work in progress) 
  • stop using deep-end institutions that eat up most of the available resources (work in progress)

My take-away

Closing youth prisons is much, much more difficult than you might think. You may end up fighting unions, “tough-on-crime” politicians, community leaders fearful of higher unemployment (from staff being laid off), etc. But until we fight those battles, we will never recapture the funds needed to tip the balance back in the right direction—so that the “ounces” of prevention can create those “pounds” of cure.

As one old friend likes to say: Fight not only the battles you can win, but those that deserve to be fought.

If we’re going to tip that scale, there’s really no other way.

To learn more about what makes MST an effective intervention for at-risk youth, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform