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Troubled Teens Need Strong Community Support Programs Not Mass Incarceration

Image by Richard Ross, Richard Ross Photography

Image by Richard Ross, Richard Ross Photography

New National Campaign Calls for Closures of
Nation’s Oldest & Largest Youth Prisons

Something must be done to fix the growing problems associated with our national prison system. Racial disparities, unequal sentencing, and the “school to prison pipeline” all lead to massively overcrowded prisons and increases to our state and federal budgets.

“With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population – that makes us the world’s largest jailer,” stated the American Civil Liberties Union in 2015.

The US prison system has become a way for governments to avoid dealing with the real problems in their communities by simply locking people away. In some cases sending them away to a for-profit prison just to meet minimum occupancy requirements to avoid paying for unused beds (but that is a completely different story).

Today, we are going to focus on the youth prison population and a new campaign to close some of the largest youth prison centers in the country to reallocate those funds to more community based programs to better serve troubled teens and their families.

Inforgraphic from  Youthfirst Initiative

Inforgraphic from Youthfirst Initiative

“On any given day America incarcerates 54,000 youth within the juvenile justice system.”

This week, a new national campaign, Youth First, released a nationwide roster of the 80 oldest and largest youth prisons in 39 states and called on the nation’s governors to close these youth prisons where children are frequently subjected to physical abuse, sexual violence, solitary confinement, and excessive use of physical and chemical restraints.  Many of these facilities are also geographically isolated and make it difficult or impossible for children to remain connected to their families and their communities.

“Even though youth incarceration has decreased in the last decade, states are still relying on youth prisons, a relic of an 1820’s justice system, that is harmful, racially biased and obsolete,” says Liz Ryan, CEO of Youth First.

The call for the closure of the facilities comes as governors of three states, Governor Malloy (D-CT), Governor Bruce Rauner (R-IL) and Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) have recently committed to close large, outdated facilities in their states, including the Connecticut Juvenile Training SchoolIllinois Youth Center at KewaneeBeaumont Juvenile Correctional Center and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

“We applaud Governors Malloy, Rauner and McAuliffe for their commitment to close four of the nation’s largest and oldest youth prisons, and we call on the rest of the nation’s governors to take similar action to end this failed approach to youth justice which has no place in America today,” said Ryan.

Image by Richard Ross, Richard Ross Photography

Image by Richard Ross, Richard Ross Photography

Youth First also unveiled a new, first-of-its-kind graphic mapping tool, the Youth Prison Inventory (YPI), that will begin to document where youth prisons are located across the country.  The initial roster of 80 facilities in 39 states represents the oldest and largest state-run youth prisons in the country that were designed with 100 beds or more or were established 100 or more years ago to incarcerate youth post-adjudication.  Many of these facilities are relics of a by-gone era, dating back to the 1800s, or were built to warehouse large numbers of children and do not represent the most effective approach to help youth or benefit public safety.  Despite this, states continue to spend large percentages of their juvenile justice budgets on this failed model.

In New Hampshire, Youth First is targeting the Sununu Youth Services Center. Like many other youth detention centers throughout the country the SYSC has a very disproportionate number of children of color incarcerated.

Children of color represent fewer than 11% of the overall youth population in New Hampshire, yet represent over 56% of the youth prison population.

Inforgraphic from Youthfirst Initiative

Inforgraphic from Youthfirst Initiative


According the Youth First’s national report and research from the Haywood Burns Institute, “African-American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are 2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and in some individual states, this disparity is profoundly higher.”

Youth First also found that, “Incarcerating youth increases their likelihood of reoffending and substantially increases their chances for future incarceration in adult prisons.”

They also found that sentencing children to prison:

  • Isolates them from their families, as many facilities are located in rural areas that are hard to access. This means that families are not a part of the recovery plans that have been shown to greatly decrease re-incarceration rates.
  • Children fall farther and farther behind in school. The Southern Education Foundation found many of the centers to be “failing profoundly in providing adequate, effective education.”
  • Youth prisons are overused. Children are locked up for minor offenses like running away, skipping school, and technical violations. These children do not present a risk to the public safety.
  • Youth prisons are unsafe as 10% report sexual assault and 50% fear physical attack
  • Youth prisons just don’t work as youth incarceration increases the likelihood of future incarceration.
October 14-16 Youth First! Initiative Meeting in Washington, DC. Credit:  Amanda Maglione Location: Public Welfare Foundation                   True Reformer Building                   1200 U Street, NW                   Washington, DC 20009

Credit: Amanda Maglione

In the last decade, formerly incarcerated youth, family members, community leaders, and advocates have launched campaigns to shut down youth prisons in states like Louisiana, New York, Mississippi, Texas, DC, and California.

Today, several campaigns with bipartisan support are seeking to build on these victories by promoting a new model of youth justice in their states. These campaigns aim to replace youth prisons with successful, research-based programs that are far more effective at rehabilitating youth, and which cost an average of only $75 per day per youth, compared to $241 per day per youth for incarceration.

People all across the country agree that we need to change the youth prison system. A recent national poll found that the vast majority of Americans (92%) believe that “what is most important is that the juvenile justice system does a better job of making sure youth get back on track so that they are less likely to commit another offense.”

The poll also found that:

  • A majority of Americans believe that youth prisons should be closed, and that the savings should be redirected to community based programs, including intensive ones for youth who pose a serious threat to public safety.
  • 73% of Americans agreed that youth can be taught to take responsibility for their actions without resorting to incarceration.
  • 70% of Americans favor requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. Young people of color are much more likely to be incarcerated despite committing roughly the same level of juvenile crime as white youth.
  • 89% of Americans prefer including a youth’s family in the design of rehabilitation services.
  • Americans favor (83%) providing financial incentives for states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration, such as intensive rehabilitation, education, job training, community services, and programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

We need to stop sending children to prison for these minor, non-threatening violations and instead use our tax dollars in a more effective community based program to rehabilitate troubled teens. We could use the money saved from these community based programs to invest more money in our local schools reducing the “school to prison pipeline.”



About Matt Murray

Matt Murray is the creator and an author on the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor and progressive politics. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message. Follow him on Twitter @NHLabor_News
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