Reprinted with permission from Equal Voice: America’s Family Story, a project of the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
In low-income communities already reeling with double-digit unemployment, news that your state plans to trim several million dollars from juvenile corrections might not cause much outcry except for the loss of jobs. But consider the implications.
With states from Florida to California closing youth prisons, thousands of young people needing jobs, education services or drug treatment will be coming home. Yet little of the savings will go into funding such programs. Instead, youth advocates across the country fear that teens-in-trouble will be essentially cut adrift. This could add new pressures to already-stressed communities and leave many to balance public safety against the needs of young offenders and their families.
Certainly, the $5.7 billion spent each year to lock up some 90,000 kids could be better spent. Recidivism rates are miserable – in many cases, worse than adult corrections – despite costs that can top $200-a-day for each incarcerated youth. What works with most court-involved teens, experts say, is a combination of family therapy, drug or mental health treatment, and employment. None of those things, however, are on the books.
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Though budget pressures are driving this trend away from youth prisons, many reformers have hailed it as a necessary, long-overdue first step toward improving the lives of young people. And California has taken the lead, proposing to dump its entire Department of Juvenile Justice by 2014. That means shuttering the state’s four remaining youth prisons and releasing more than 1,300 teens to county-run community programs.
“A historic moment,” cheered Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, who has relentlessly campaigned to close youth prisons. “The tide has turned – politicians are starting to realize what our families have known for years: dumping youth in prisons doesn’t make us safer.”
Gov. Jerry Brown promises that the California plan will reap $250 million a year in savings, and other states are considering similar measures. The lives of thousands of youth now hang in the balance, yet plans for serving their needs exist as little more than a patchwork of good intentions.
“It’s been an odd thing,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance in Arizona, where the governor also proposed doing away with the Department of Juvenile Corrections. “We certainly want kids to be closer to home, in less restrictive settings, yet here we were saying, ‘No, don’t do this.’”
In Arizona, she said, there was zero transition plan for the youth coming home. “It was just, ‘We’re going to wipe it off our books.’ But the kids don’t just disappear so what were we doing? It was very irresponsible.”
Chastened, Gov. Jan Brewer retreated from that plan, suggesting instead that a commission study the matter – and still cut juvenile corrections by 10 percent. Like many policymakers, she justified her approach with reams of solid research showing that kids do better when they aren’t locked in cells.
Indeed, the return on our youth-prison investments have been dismal: We spend up to $200 per youth, per day to imprison young people – a majority of them children of color convicted of nonviolent crimes. Each confinement increases the chances of another, as well as the chances that a teen will drop out of high school and end up in the adult corrections system.
Lourdes Duarte watched as her 15-year-old son was sent away to California’s Preston Youth Correctional Facility after spending time in a group home and 10 months in the juvenile hall holding pen. She says he was bipolar and in need of treatment – experts believe 20 percent of incarcerated youth suffer similar mental illnesses – but none of that was available at Preston. During his time there, two youths committed a double suicide and Duarte’s son attempted the same, stabbing himself with a fork. His treatment? Lock-up, 23 hours a day, for five months. “They claimed there was nothing wrong with him,” she said.
But when he was finally released at age 21, she received a son in even worse shape than when he left. Now 27, the young man continues to struggle – angry, drifting and unable to hold a steady job. “Their mind is still incarcerated, and that is very hard to break. It’s like trying to nurse your child all over again and you don’t know how because they are so broken inside.”
The literature on youth incarceration shows that what Duarte’s son experienced is typical so youth advocates are understandably heartened by the move away from this expensive, ineffective system. The question is: what awaits youth on the other end, in their home communities?
“It’s going to be catch as catch can,” said James Bell, a former youth lawyer and now executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco. “It’s not well-planned and some places – the ones that depended on sending kids to long-term facilities – are going to be in a world of hurt because these kids are coming back home, and they’re going to have to figure out what to do with them.”
Bell is outraged by the dismal outcomes and skewed racial makeup of America’s juvenile justice system. But in the current climate, he worries that bureaucrats will scramble to save jobs over programs. “When budget cuts come and you have only one officer to manage 15 kids on intensive probation, that program isn’t operating in any way that makes sense,” he said. “So you’ll have worse outcomes, and you’ll put kids in a position to fail.”
There is plenty of evidence to back up Bell’s fears. Despite polls that show strong public support for funding human services, money for mental health treatment, job training, education and community development has shriveled in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Not that there was much to begin with.
In Louisiana, for instance, lawmakers closed the notoriously brutal Tallulah youth prison in 2004, mandating that all of the $25 million in savings follow the youth home, through treatment and diversion programs. But it never happened. Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, says most of the money ended up with the Department of Corrections – that is, funding the imprisonment of adults.
“We saw something very similar happen again, in 2008,” she said, describing $12 million saved through downsizing the Jetson Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, a place that had become notorious for reports of sexual violence. One former inmate, Eric LaSalle, told a newspaper that he had been locked in a cell for about seven weeks, routinely beaten by guards: “I was beaten so badly in there in there by a guard that he broke my eardrum,” LaSalle said. “And there were rapes, but they weren’t reported very often. If a kid was raped on a guard’s watch, the guard would get fired and the other guards were going to make sure the kid paid for telling.”
An experience like that would leave most anyone needing treatment. Yet only $2 million in Jetson savings found its way into community programs. About $2 million went to hire more probation officers, and $8 million simply disappeared through budget cuts. “When you think about what that $8 million could have done, it’s pretty significant,” Kaplan said. On top of that, Louisiana’s funding for prevention, youth mentorship, and day-treatment services was slashed by an additional $11 million.
Meanwhile, Texas, already ranked 49th in the nation for spending on mental health, may cut $141 million from state programs that aid troubled children and families; Georgia has canceled its Runaway Apprehension Unit, and Kentucky dumped a boot camp aimed at diverting kids from crime.
“On one hand, we’re provided with a real window of opportunity here,” Kaplan said. “We’ve heard our governor – who’s certainly been a big proponent of tough-on-crime in the past – talking about the need to be smarter in how we deal with juvenile justice. But there’s going to be a great deal of work in translating that into a more progressive public-policy agenda.”
Watching it all from her vantage point in Washington, D.C., Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, isn’t surprised at the lag between progressive talk and legislative action. To wit: last year the District of Columbia bulked up its spending on prosecutors and police, but cut parks and recreation by nearly 20 percent, mental health by 17 percent and housing and community development by more than a third.
“We’ve tried to emphasize that when you cut programs promoting positive youth development, there will be consequences, and they will be expensive consequences,” Velazquez said. “You can’t cut the services that families depend on and not expect fallout down the road.”