A group of current and former corrections officials launched a drive Wednesday to close the country’s remaining youth prisons and to further transform the punishment-focused juvenile justice system to a community-based approach.
“The default should not be prison; the default should be community,” said Gladys Carrión, co-chair of Youth Corrections Leaders for Justice, speaking at the Columbia School of Social Work. “We need to redesign our juvenile justice system so that it would be more equitable, rational and efficient to better address the needs of young people.”
The organization is under the auspices of the Justice Lab at Columbia University and includes current and former officials from several states and localities, including Harris County, Texas, Los Angeles and Maine, who are interested in closing the nation’s remaining 80 juvenile correctional facilities where nearly 46,000 children are incarcerated.
In 2010, New York State closed four of its most dangerous youth prisons under a federal consent decree. Carrión subsequently closed 21 juvenile prison facilities in her former role as commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. She later served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services. She resigned from ACS in 2016 after the agency’s oversight role in the deaths of several children came under scrutiny.
The co-chair of the youth corrections group, Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner, said he hopes that all juvenile prisons in the nation can be closed in a decade, but he fears that communities in upstate New York, where the state Department of Corrections employs more than 19,000 people, may resist facility closures because of job losses.
Schiraldi said high juvenile incarceration rates have devastating effects on communities of color.
Black youth are more than five times as likely to be detained or locked up than white youth. Between 2001 and 2015, juvenile incarceration rates fell by 54 percent, but the overall disparity between the numbers of black and white youth in custody has increased 22 percent since 2001, according to the Department of Justice.
“We’re telling these communities that we value their children less than other people’s children and that is not a message lost in our communities of color,” Schiraldi said. “We’re robbing these young people of opportunities to thrive and to be successful adults.”
Even though the youth corrections group advocates for shutting juvenile prisons, they do believe that youth should be placed in out-of-home care when cases of public safety absolutely require it, but only for the minimum time necessary to address the risk.
Asked what a world without prisons would look like, Carrión imagines a system where resources and money are reinvested in communities, infrastructure serves young people and re-entry and family visitation are made easier.
“How do we move other systems and help other systems move in a direction where you no longer rely on prisons as the default for young people when they commit an offense?” she asked.