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Locked Up Too Tight

Over the last decade, through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative pioneered by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and Santa Cruz, Calif., also have dramatically reduced the number of youths in locked detention, with no increase in juvenile arrests. In the last three years, as part of the same initiative, Boise, Idaho; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Santa Clara and San Francisco, Calif., have also reduced detention significantly. These diverse locations used a combination of detention alternatives and objective procedures to safely lower the number of juveniles in detention.

Public officials also would be better off if they stopped using large prisonlike institutions for those delinquent youths who do need to be confined. In the 1980s, scandals about youth prison conditions in Missouri prompted that state to close its large juvenile institution and develop a network of small, homelike facilities for its most troubled kids. These facilities generally have a maximum of 40 beds and a rich variety of programs that rely heavily on counseling and rehabilitation. In most cases, they are within driving distance of the youngsters' families.

The results have been remarkable. Only 8 percent of youths released from Missouri's facilities wind up in adult prisons, compared with 30 percent in Maryland. Support for the reforms spans the political spectrum: conservative Missouri Supreme Court Justice Stephen Limbaugh (Rush's cousin) is a supporter, according to a Los Angeles Times report, as was the late Democratic governor Mel Carnahan. Policymakers in Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi are currently looking to replicate the "Missouri Model."

Military reservists are no more innately abusive than facility staff in South Dakota or Stanford undergraduates. Large, factorylike prisons reduce the humanity of custodians as well as those in custody. An important lesson of Abu Ghraib is that it is time to abandon the 19th-century model of youth prisons and replace it with smaller, more rehabilitative facilities that give troubled youngsters a real chance to turn their lives around.

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Vincent Schiraldi is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a public policy organization focusing on criminal justice issues. Mark Soler is president of the Youth Law Center, which works nationwide on juvenile justice reform.

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