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Youth Corrections Chiefs, Prosecutors Call for Shutting ‘Inhumane’ Youth Prisons

More than 40 youth correctional administrators joined prosecutors from over 30 jurisdictions in a statement calling for the closure of youth detention facilities across the U.S.

Continuing the use of youth prisons to confine juvenile offenders is “ineffective, inefficient, and inhumane,” said the statement, which was jointly issued Thursday by Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) and Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ).

“As professionals charged with promoting the public’s safety and well-being, rehabilitating young people and seeking justice, the time has come for us to speak out and oppose the continued operation of these facilities.”

Although the rate of youth incarceration has been dropping, on any given day about 48,000 young people are confined to facilities away from home as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement, based on figures released in 2019.

Meanwhile, some 40 states and Washington, D.C. currently spend at least $100,000 per incarcerated child per year, according to a report issued simultaneously by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). Some states – such as Alaska, New Hampshire, and New York – spend more than $500,000.

At the state level, the average cost per person per year is approximately $214,000.

This figure marks a 44 percent increase from 2014, according to the JPI report.

Marc Schindler

Marc Schindler

“The research is clear that youth prisons don’t work for young people,” Marc Schindler, former director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and current executive director of JPI, told an online press conference preceding the report’s release.

Indeed, the JPI report indicates that “secure youth incarceration increases the likelihood of recidivism and harms educational attainment, lifetime wages, and future health outcomes.”

The report cited a study conducted by Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. in 2013, that found incarceration as an adolescent increased the likelihood of recidivism as an adult by at least 22 percent.

Youth incarceration was also associated with a reduction in wages and yearly earnings for adult males by 11 percent and 40 percent respectively, according to the report.

Moreover, individuals who were incarcerated during adolescence and/or early adulthood exhibited suffered worse general and mental health as adults than their non-incarcerated peers.

The report underscored that the burden of youth incarceration falls disproportionately on kids of color.

“Black, Native American, and Latinx youth are incarcerated at five, three, and 1.7 times the rate of white youth, respectively, with disparities increasing as youth move deeper into the system,” the report found.

In addition to closing all youth prisons, JPI offered several recommendations to states and counties.

They included:

        • Diverting funding from incarceration to community-based options for youth;
        • Expanding overall community investment;
        • Developing and implementing a race-conscious system that addresses the racial disparities evident in youth incarceration; and
        • Removing all barriers (e.g., rigid sentencing guidelines and inadequate reentry training) to reducing reliance on incarceration.

At the press conference, Schindler mentioned another way in which incarceration places youth in harm’s way: the easy spread of the coronavirus.

“These facilities are not safe during their best days,” he said. “During the pandemic, they are even worse.”

Meanwhile, Satana Deberry, district attorney of Durham County, N.C., and a signatory of the joint statement, attacked the very concept of youth incarceration.

She said: “I am not a child development person. I prosecute adults for serious and violent crimes. I am a hammer, and everything…look[s] like a nail. Why would we want to treat our children that way?”

Danna, a youth who spent five years in prison, was offered the last word of the conference.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” said Danna, whose last name was withheld at her request. “They took away my life, my teenage life.”

JPI’s full report can be downloaded here.

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.