Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Vincent Schiraldi is a senior research scientist at the Columbia Justice Lab. They are both former directors of the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
Two investigative reports published this month detail shocking conditions in youth prisons in Florida and South Carolina. The Miami Herald meticulously chronicled Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice staff arranging violent bouts between youths and bribing them to beat up other incarcerated youths. In South Carolina, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation regarding deaths and assaults in the state’s youth facilities.
It is tempting to view scandals like these as idiosyncratic acts of malfeasance or incompetence. But a 2016 report published by Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice — along with our own experience with juvenile corrections — reveal them to be anything but unusual. These failures only further prove that we should close all youth prisons in the United States and replace them with community programs and smaller rehabilitative facilities near youths’ homes for the few young people who need to be incarcerated.
In 2007, the Associated Press surveyed every youth prison in the United States, uncovering 13,000 allegations of abuse in facilities housing 46,000 young people. Two separate reports by the Annie E. Casey Foundation similarly chronicled recurring or systemic maltreatment of incarcerated youth in all but five states from 1970 to 2015.
At juvenile residential centers in New York, the Justice Department uncovered incidents of staff breaking bones and knocking out teeth for infractions such as talking in line or swiping dessert from the cafeteria. These incidents were only uncovered after a 15-year-old died in custody while staff pinned him to the ground.
A 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 1 in 10 incarcerated youth reported being sexually assaulted in a youth prisons. In Texas, one facility administrator was found guilty of sexually abusing inmates in his care as widespread allegations of sexual abuse of youthful inmates shocked state leaders. And in the District system that we ran, staff physically and sexually assaulted youth in our custody, occasionally sexually pressuring staff as well.
Even though we spend an average of almost $150,000 a year to lock up each juvenile, they often emerge worse off than when they arrive. Compared to peers of the same age, young people who experience America’s youth prisons are more likely to be arrested in the future, have worse employment and educational outcomes and are more prone to mental illness.
The good news is that policymakers are increasingly realizing that the youth prison model — not just a particular staff member or administrator — is the problem. The number of young people locked up in America has declined by 53 percent from 2001 to 2013, when more than two-thirds of the youth prisons with capacity above 200 have closed.
After the sex scandal in Texas, state policymakers acted decisively, reducing sentence lengths and prohibiting state incarceration for minor offenses. These reforms reduced the incarcerated youth population by two-thirds allowing the state to close eight youth prisons and save $150 million. Fifty million dollars of those savings were returned to counties to encourage them to serve youth locally rather than send them to state facilities. From 2007 to 2013, youth arrests in Texas fell by 49 percent.
Following the deaths in custody and the Justice Department investigation in New York, city and state officials collaborated to transfer almost all city youth from distant and brutal upstate youth prisons to closer to home. In the process, city stakeholders moved youth into small, rehabilitative facilities in or near the city and created a range of community programs for those youth who did not need to be incarcerated. In the first two years following the initiative, the number of incarcerated city youth dropped in half, and youth arrests in New York City declined by 53 percent.
In the District, we closed the notorious 208-bed Oak Hill Youth Center after decades of abuse there, replacing the facility with a network of community programs and the more rehabilitation-focused 60-bed New Beginnings facility. Some criticized New Beginnings as too small when it started, but juvenile arrests in D.C. have plummeted by 45 percent since Oak Hill was closed in 2009. New Beginnings held only 29 youth last month and is now considered one of the leading secure facilities in the country for rehabilitative care.
Seldom have science, crime rates and politics aligned like they are today in the juvenile justice arena. Red and blue states around the country are successfully experimenting with approaches that eschew youth prisons in favor of robust community programming and small, safe and decent facilities close to the homes of young offenders.
It’s time for Florida, South Carolina and any other state incarcerating young people to follow suit. We should abandon these flawed practices and close outdated youth prisons for good.