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What Criminal Justice Reform Can Learn from the Rise and Fall of Youth Prisons

Pushing back against fear, redistributing resources, and involving communities have been key to success, according to recent Square One report.

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Can the United States eliminate the youth prison? 

The question may seem extreme or radical, something that should be mentioned alongside calls to defund the police or for total prison abolitionism.

Yet in a June 2020 paper released by the Square One Project, Vinny Schiraldi, Co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab, answers this question with a resounding: Yes.

His response isn’t merely an argument in the affirmative. It is a reflection of the massive changes that have occurred within youth justice systems across the country.

The story of how we got here offers a lesson to the rest of the criminal justice reform movement. By pushing back against fear-based narratives, demonstrating the harm inflicted by incarceration, and successfully redirecting resources into an alternative system, the campaign to eliminate youth prisons shows what a true reimagining of criminal justice can look like.

The nation's youth incarceration population has fallen to a third of its 100,000 peak in 2000, and the number continues to shrink. Certain jurisdictions, such as New York City, have eliminated their entire youth detention program. States by state, large lock-ups are being shut down and replaced with community-oriented housing.

Youth prisons are being eliminated. That’s a fact.

The movement has been led by advocates — like the Youth First Initiative -— and experts who have successfully pointed out that youth incarceration inflicts massive harms on those incarcerated. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that analyzed litigation and exposés about juvenile facilities from 1970 to 2015 documented systematic mistreatment at facilities in nearly every state. Children in these facilities were subjected to high rates of violence, sexual abuse, physical restraints, and solitary confinement. This harm was disproportionately burdened by black and Latinx youths.

Meanwhile, many of the kids and teenagers locked up in these buildings posed little, if any, threat to society and still have great potential to turn their lives around.

“There’s a whole bunch of kids that come into youth lock ups that just don’t belong there, under any definition of the word belong,” Schiraldi said. “Kids come in for a status offense, things that aren’t even a crime if you’re an adult like running away from home or skipping school. A bunch of them come in for technical violations and parole violations, and a whole other bunch come in for non-violent offences.”

These kids never needed to be youth detention in the first place. So how did they end up there?

The Superpredator Panic

Eliminating youth lockups is not a new idea. The modern movement began in the early 1970s when the head of youth corrections in Massachusetts, Jerome Miller, shuttered all of the state’s youth facilities after failing to implement successful reforms.

“Reformers come and reformers go,” Miller wrote. “State institutions carry on. Nothing in their history suggests they can sustain reform, no matter what money, what staff, and programs are pumped into them.”

Yet rather than changing the paradigm, Miller’s decision looks more like a short-lived aberration. Rising crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s fed skeptical attitudes toward rehabilitative juvenile justice practices. Elected officials who supported reforms were attacked as soft-on-crime. Punitive policies became political winners. Fear-mongering coverage by media outlets stoked a national panic.

“The media was not on our side in the ‘90s,” Schiraldi said. “The media was sitting around, writing stories about ‘judge sends this kid to juvenile facility and he goes out and does a horrible thing,’ or ‘person gets probation and does this horrible thing.’ [...] It was a layup for the media.”

These narratives didn’t reflect the reality of crime rates at the time. Crimes by children were disproportionately covered by news outlets — particularly serious crimes. Black people were more frequently portrayed as perpetrators and less frequently presented as victims.

“Kids were committing between 12-15 percent of all crime,” Schiraldi said. “And surveys were showing that the public thought that kids committed most crimes.”

The trend was exacerbated by academic reports that inaccurately predicted skyrocketing youth crime rates and a “blood bath of teen violence.” Political scientist John J. DiIulio infamously warned about the rise of a so-called “super-predators” and framed youth offenders as some kind of comic-book supervillain.

“On the horizon [...] are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators,” Dilulio wrote at the time. “They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons [...] They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment.”

Of course, that wasn’t true. Dilulio later recanted his assessment, but the damage had been done.

In this atmosphere of panic, every single state took steps that made it easier to prosecute or jail young people with adults and hollowed out the protections unique to the juvenile system. Youth incarceration skyrocketed as a result.

But then the political conditions started to change. Bipartisan buy-in to tough-on-crime policy made it a less effective campaign bludgeon. Crime rates continued to fall. And new fears — especially after Sept. 11, 2001 — started to supplant concerns about youth violence. Meanwhile, reform advocates continued to push back against the false super-predator narrative.

The children and teenagers held in facilities also became critical advocates for change — and for their own liberation. Their stories presented a counternarrative to the terrifying headlines about killer kids.

“The advocates of the time did not just fight with data, we fought with stories about young people who were locked up who shouldn’t be locked up,” Schiraldi said. “So when John Dilulio tried to vilify and stereotype young people, we advocates fought back with stories of real, live young people — in addition to data and research.”

The movement also benefited with support from people who worked within the youth justice system — modern-day Jerome Millers calling not just for reform, but for a total end to locking up kids and teenagers. Unlike the adult system, the juvenile system never lost its mission of rehabilitation. Even when the system was at its worst, the goal of helping kids turn their lives around attracted people with more of a social services background than a corrections background. Some, not all, of them became a voice for change, and today those youth correctional administrator/advocates are formally incorporated into Youth Corrections Leaders for Justice.

Nonprofits also stepped up to study and advocate for reform of the youth justice system. At the peak of the superpredator panic, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative with the goal of shrinking youth detention populations and reducing racial disparities. And the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice has influenced United States Supreme Court decisions about juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

“A lot of the credit for the success on youth decarceration front lies with those two philanthropies,” said Amy Solomon, Arnold Ventures vice president for criminal justice.

All of these voices were heard by politicians. Tough-on-crime lost its impact. Arguments about the harm and waste of juvenile lock-ups — and the benefits of alternatives systems — began to gain sway in city halls and state legislatures.

Relearning Lessons

Pressure built to shrink the footprint of youth detention facilities. In New York, the number of kids and teenagers behind bars plummeted from 1,896 in 1995 to 642 by 2010. Nevertheless, the system remained overwhelmed with scandals. The recidivism rate was in the 90 percentile. A report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch documented toxic conditions in girls state youth prisons. A 15-year-old was killed by staff at an upstate prison. The Justice Department sued. And the shrinking population just meant that the per-capita cost of running youth detention continued to grow.

New York had to relearn the facts Massachusetts knew decades earlier. Confronted by the reality of a fundamentally broken system, both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for its elimination. In his first state-of-the-state address in 2011, Cuomo said that treatment in youth detention facilities had been proven “ineffective.” Later, Bloomberg would deem them “relics of a bygone era, when troubled city kids were stripped from their families and shipped to detention centers in remote rural areas.”

Both politicians supported the “Close to Home” initiative, which ended youth incarceration for kids in New York City and instead replaced the rural and upstate detention facilities with in-home and community programs. The few youths who did need to be locked up would be held in homelike facilities near their own neighborhoods.

By February 2019, the number of kids and teenagers in custody declined to 107 and were held in local placements ranging in size from six to 20 beds. Only 12 of them were held in locked facilities.

California, too, has moved along this path. The state youth prison population fell from 10,000 in the mid-1990s to less than 800 now. And in May, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed eliminating the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice entirely.

Redeploy Illinois and RECLAIM Ohio programs serve as community-based alternatives to detention for youth in their respective states.

This is a national movement. Between 2002 and 2012, one-third of all youth facilities shut their doors and two-thirds of large facilities (those with a capacity of more than 200) closed down.

Building (And Funding) A Different System

Key to this movement has been capturing and redeploying resources to build and sustain the community-based alternatives to incarceration. These local facilities are small and work to involve parents, limit interaction with antisocial peers, help facilitate healthy development and offer opportunities for academic and personal success. These facilities are more likely to reduce recidivism and improve youth well-being than institutionalization, according to the National Research Council, yet they still require robust investment.

Meanwhile, the leading federal initiative to redirect justice dollars to communities — the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — has been criticized for failing to substantially shift this balance between decarceration and community support.

While state support is necessary, neighborhood-level involvement is key to successful community services. Residents are able to leverage legitimacy and enforce informal social control in ways that formal governmental structures cannot. In fact, research led by Princeton sociologist Pat Sharkey has found that every 10 additional non-profit organizations devoted to community development or violence prevention in a large city led to a 9 percent drop in the murder rate and a 6 percent drop in violent crime.

“If I could do it over again, I would really want to codesign it with the 10 or so neighborhoods that fill most of the beds in the system,” Schiraldi said about the Close To Home program.

There are examples around the world of communities getting involved in their own alternatives to the criminal justice status quo. In Colorado, the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Bill funds grants designed by local planning teams to support neighborhood crime prevention programs. In Brooklyn, the Imagining Project will allow neighborhoods most involved with the criminal justice system to co-design safety and justice projects along with the District Attorney’s Office, Center for Nu Leadership, and Columbia Justice Lab. And in New Zealand, indigenous tribes created an at-home remand program instead of having to send youth facing charges to a detention facility four hours away.

In the end, it isn’t enough to merely eliminate the aspect of the criminal justice system that inflicted so much harm on Black and Latinx communities. The government has to help these neighborhoods heal and build their own systems from the bottom-up.

“If we want to have fewer police and prisons we have to replace it with something, and I don't believe that something is more money to the probation department,” Schiraldi said. “The community has to step up, and we have to empower them to step up and give them the sort of resources that we have managed to pour into prisons.”