Should We Close All Youth Prisons and Is Now the Right Time?


Marc SchindlerAt the JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative) conference in Phoenix last month, about 1,000 people from around the country heard Annie E. Casey Foundation President (and former juvenile corrections administrator) Patrick McCarthy repeat his recent call for America to close its youth prisons.

Let’s be clear: Having the president of the largest youth-serving foundation in the country make this statement, and offer to help any states willing to heed his call to action, is monumental. It’s a call to end a model of youth confinement that has existed in this country for a century.

It could serve as a dramatic change for adult and youth corrections systems that together result in the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate and the largest prison systems in the world.

Thinking about McCarthy’s call to action, I reflect on my own experiences with youth prisons. I spent much of my career as an attorney either trying to keep youth out of such facilities (as a public defender representing youth in Baltimore’s juvenile court) or bringing litigation challenging abusive and unconstitutional conditions of confinement and advocating for policies that would result in fewer youth being locked up (as a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center).

Then, like McCarthy, I was part of a leadership team attempting to reform an agency running a dangerous and abusive facility (Washington, D.C.’s Oak Hill Youth Center, which had been described as among the most dangerous and abusive facilities in the country in the 1990s).

hub_arrow_2-01So I literally went from suing youth prisons to running one. Though it was a battle and I discovered that it was much easier to sue facilities than reform and close them, in Washington we succeeded in significantly reducing the number of youth confined in secure settings.

We did this by limiting secure confinement  to the small number of youth committed to our agency for serious and violent offenses, creating a broader and more effective range of community-based services, supports and opportunities, and grounding our approach to working with youth and their families on the principles of positive youth development.

Additionally, we closed the old, decrepit 188-bed Oak Hill facility and replaced it with a much smaller 60-bed facility with significantly improved conditions and a focus on programming, including having one of the highest-quality educational programs in a secure youth facility in the country.

But while we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of youth confined or placed out of the home nationally — from a high of 100,000 a decade ago to about 50,000 today (i.e., actually achieving the “Cut-50” target being called for in the adult system) — far too many youth are still confined in dangerous, large prisonlike institutions.

In its recent report, “Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Juvenile Corrections Facilities,” the Casey Foundation documented the abuses and atrocities occurring on a regular basis in large secure facilities across the country. We recently saw images out of Connecticut of abusive practices by youth prison guards.

[Related: Revised JDAI Standards Call for End to Unnecessary Solitary Confinement]

This occurred in a state lauded for its reforms based on best practices and developmental research, including reducing the use of incarceration and raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. Seeing these horrific images in a state that has made such progress in its youth justice system is an example of how these types of youth prisons will always be places where violence and maltreatment can happen.

While McCarthy said some would consider the idea of closing all youth prisons a radical idea, he also pointed to the growing recognition that locking up too many at high costs and with poor public safety outcomes shows that this idea shouldn’t be considered radical at all. Calling youth prisons “factories of failure,” he pointed to the high rates of recidivism of youth coming out of these institutions; the fact that the approach ignores all we know about adolescent development, brain science and what works in responding to delinquency; and that most of the young people in these prisons are young people of color. He also said that the youth prison model fails the “my child test,” rightly noting that if one of our own children were in trouble with the law, we would do all we could to keep them out of a youth prison.

As someone who, like McCarthy, ran one of these youth prison systems, I also believe that based on what we know, there is no moral or ethical choice other than to close these facilities, and to do it now.

McCarthy and others are also rightly asking what the alternative is to youth prisons and how we get there. Broadening and reframing this question, as McCarthy suggests, is the right way to go. We should be asking: How we can show the public that we can hold youth accountable, help youth transition to adulthood and address the harm when young people move through the phase of delinquency?

For example, do we have a robust continuum of community-based supports, services and opportunities, (including programs with no reject/no eject policies) to serve every child? Do we have a system in place where all the players, from judges to prosecutors to probation and defenders, will only recommend out-of-home secure placement for the very small percentage of youth, if any, who absolutely need to be placed in a secure setting? In addition, it is critical that we push to have other youth-serving systems — from education to mental health, child welfare, housing, recreation and others — do their parts to prevent youth from having to enter the justice system to have their needs met.

That said, in places like Connecticut and others that are making progress in some areas, we still need to ask ourselves if the reforms are going far enough. Can we be satisfied with any system that still includes a large, secure facility that relies on prisonlike hardware and security, even for a small percentage of youth committed for violent behavior who pose a significant public safety risk?

To this day, while I’m proud of the work we did in Washington, even though we downsized and created what I believe is a much better system, we still had what I would describe as a “youth prison.” While it is much smaller and better than what existed before, due to its institutional nature and power dynamics that will always exist in an incarceration setting, these types of institutions are always vulnerable to reverting back to the abusive practices that we worked hard to eliminate.

We need to really challenge ourselves. We need to work together, including with those outside the justice system, putting as much energy and resources as possible into a robust continuum of care in the community. And then for the very small number of youth who do pose a significant risk to public safety, we need to have small rehabilitative facilities, close to their homes, where we can work with youth to get them safely back in their homes and their communities as soon as possible. By doing this, we can once and for all do away with large prisons for our youth.

Marc A. Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, and former general counsel and interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.

More related articles:

JDAI Starting to Sound Like a Systems Revolution

Casey’s JDAI Releases LGBTQ Practice Standards at Annual Conference


One thought on “Should We Close All Youth Prisons and Is Now the Right Time?”

  1. Great article!!

    We all have hope that this occurs and obviously progress is being faster in some states than others. Since virtually half of our adult prisons and juvenile detention facilities hold individuals that have violated parole or probation I think we need to start this work by improving services and educational opportunities in the facilities that exist.

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