Nell Bernstein is the author of “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.” Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, former director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation.

A new call has made its way into the national conversation: “Defund the police.” But even as mainstream America awakens to the profound harm caused by policing as we know it, shifting resources away from an institution we’ve taken for granted has been met with wariness by those who worry the concept is so radical it could tank Democrats’ elections chances, or simply wonder who will keep them safe in lieu of men with guns.

As students and veterans of the movement to abolish youth prisons, we’ve been here before. For decades, as black and brown children were regularly abused — and sometimes killed — in youth prisons, the notion of closing them was dismissed as too radical, too dangerous or politically impossible. But we have seen the impossible happen, thanks to the right convergence of actors and events: The number of incarcerated people below the age of 18 has shrunk by more than half since its 2000 peak, while two-thirds of the nation’s large youth prisons have been shuttered. Youth prisons continue to vanish by the day, with no cost — and likely a significant benefit — to public safety.

For those struggling with the challenge of reinventing policing, this experience holds a message: No matter how profound the obstacles, transforming an entrenched institution in the service of justice is possible.

As Schiraldi documents in a new paper from the Columbia Justice Lab’s Square One Project, state after state has now shuttered large-scale youth prisons in favor of smaller local alternatives, moved away from incarcerating kids as adults and, most crucially, stopped locking up juveniles except in rare cases. As youth incarceration plummeted by double digits in all states but one since 2000, youth crime dropped by 60 percent.

This does not surprise us. Youth prisons were never essential to public safety. They were just about placating fears.

As with the current movement to rethink policing, moves to shutter youth prisons have often followed highly publicized atrocities. In 2006, Darryl Thompson, a 15-year-old black youth from the Bronx, was killed during a harsh “takedown” by staff at a New York youth prison. A Justice Department investigation found a “one-size-fits-all control approach [that] has not surprisingly led to an alarming number of serious injuries to youth, including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures.” Within a few years of that 2009 report, New York City completely stopped sending kids to state youth prisons. The nation’s largest city now has only around 70 youths in small facilities in the city, and all arrests in that age group have plummeted by more than half.

The covid-19 pandemic, while posing grave dangers to those behind bars, has further accelerated the movement to abolish youth prisons. In the first two months after the virus hit the United States, admissions of young people to detention dropped by 52 percent.

Since the onset of the pandemic, six youth prisons in five different jurisdictions have closed. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced his intention to close the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice entirely, shuttering a brutal network of youth prisons that once locked up 10,000 kids. Maryland’s highest court instructed judges to release young detainees to keep them safe during the pandemic, resulting in a 53 percent drop in kids behind bars in a matter of months.

Crucially, the pandemic-related drop in youth incarceration is benefiting black youths at a higher rate than white youths. This is unprecedented. When Schiraldi was running the youth justice department in Washington, D.C., there was not a single white child in custody. Pre-coronavirus, even as youth incarceration dropped nationwide, the racial gap among youthful detainees widened. This latest shift offers a glimmer of hope around an injustice that has so far appeared as intractable as racialized policing.

While it’s easy to dismiss police chiefs who “take a knee” in solidarity, it’s worth noting that the movement to shutter youth prisons has benefited tremendously from the support of those running such systems. Last year, a group of 55 current and former youth prison administrators (which Schiraldi co-chairs) condemned youth lockup as an “archaic” institution where “abuse is common” and “falls disproportionately on youth of color” concluding that “the time has come to close down youth prisons, once and for all.” On those rare occasions when a young person must be removed from home for the safety of the community, the group recommended substituting “a warm, nurturing environment, close to home” for the brutal, distant prisons its members had run. These changes are happening at an astonishing rate.

Although there’s still work to be done to completely abolish youth prisons, the success of that movement holds important lessons for those now working to downsize the police — most crucially, that watershed change and community safety go hand in hand.

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