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Alternatives to Youth Incarceration: New Report Calls for the End of Youth Prisons

Posted in 2016, Federal Update Friday, 28 October 2016

By Jeree Thomas, CFYJ Policy Director

“We do not need these huge facilities because all they do is break us down.”  Da’Quon Beaver, a community organizer for the RISE for Youth Campaign, recounted his experience of incarceration in several of Virginia’s large youth prisons on a panel held at the Department of Justice on Friday, October 21st. 

The panel discussion was preceded by a presentation of a new report entitled, The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model.  The report was written in collaboration between the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice.  It documents not only the failure of the youth prison model, but several state campaigns around the country to replace the model with community-based programs and placements for youth. 

The report and panel discussion highlighted the human and economic costs of youth incarceration, the racial inequity that currently plagues the model, and a path for replacing the youth prison model.

The rise of the large youth prison model was in part a response to the debunked 1990s theory of “juvenile super predators,” who think, function, and commit crimes in heartless ways that are no different than adults.  As a result, youth prisons were built and are currently run like adult prisons.  Youth are held in solitary confinement.  Education and vocational opportunities are non-existent and those that do exist tend to be low quality.  Connection to families and community support systems are tenuous, and the combination of these factors inhibits the true development of healthy decision-making and critical thinking skills.  On average, states across the country spend $146,302 per year to incarcerate one youth in a large youth prison, and the return for this investment is a 70-80 percent re-arrest rate within two to three years of a youth’s release from a youth prison. 

In addition to a lack of rehabilitative and developmental resources for youth in prisons there is also widespread abuse and neglect. 1 in 8 youth have experienced sexual violence and other physical abuse in these facilities.  The youth exposed not only to incarceration, but to this abuse are disproportionately youth of color.  According to the report, black youth were incarcerated at 4.7 times the rate of white youth, Native American youth were incarcerated at 3.3 times the rate of white youth, and Latino youth were incarcerated at 1.7 times the rate of white youth.    

The inherent structural issues with youth prisons have led to the development of a four-pronged approach to change the youth justice system: reduce, reform, replace and reinvest.  

States can reduce their youth prison population by limiting the type of offenses that can result in commitment to a youth prison.  For example, eliminating commitment eligibility of youth with only misdemeanor offenses.  States can also reduce the length of time that youth remain in youth prisons by updating their statute, regulations, or guidelines governing the length of stay for youth in these prisons. 

Secondly, states can reform their youth justice system by emphasizing community-based and family-centered program alternatives to incarceration.  There are evidence-based programs that produce better outcomes for youth, are less expensive than incarceration, and reduce out of home placements in a way that is far more beneficial than placement in a youth prison. 

The third prong is to replace large youth prisons with smaller, home-like placements that are closer and more integrated into communities. 

Finally, the fourth prong is to reinvest funding from closing large youth prisons into rehabilitating and treating youth in their homes and communities. 

As one of the report’s authors highlighted at the presentation, America is at a true moment of opportunity.  We know what “breaks” youth down, what increases recidivism, and reduces public safety, and we have the knowledge and, in a growing number of states, the political will to stop doing what does not work.  Dismantling the inherently flawed youth prison model and replacing the model with community-based and preferably community-driven, family-oriented programming will make all the difference in the lives of our youth and our communities.