The Annie E. Casey Foundation is throwing new weight into its campaign to close state juvenile correctional centers nationwide, saying they’ve effectively become “youth prisons” where teens are prone to being abused.
The Casey Foundation is calling for an end to “large, prison-like institutions” for teens who have been committed to custody by a judge. In a new TEDx talk, Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy says large, secure facilities have become “factories of failure” that wreck the lives of the kids they’re supposed to help.
"We need to admit that what we're doing doesn't work, and is making the problem worse while costing billions of dollars and ruining thousands of lives," McCarthy says.
It’s not a new stance for the foundation, one of the leading institutions studying juvenile justice and other youth issues. But it’s taking the argument beyond the field of practitioners and policy wonks, and it’s left more than a few people in the juvenile justice field questioning its practicality.
McCarthy’s call is accompanied by a new report that documents widespread physical abuse and excessive use of force in many youth lockups, saying years of efforts to reform those institutions have fallen short.
“The troubling evidence presented in this report should remove any remaining doubt that large conventional juvenile corrections facilities — or plainly stated, youth prisons — are inherently prone to abuse,” the report concludes. “Given public officials’ inability to prevent maltreatment, or even to clean up youth prisons where inhumane conditions are revealed, it seems difficult to argue that confinement in these institutions offers a safe approach for rehabilitating delinquent youth.”
Nate Balis, the head of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said the foundation wants to take that message “to a much different audience.”
“We’re not just putting this stuff on our website. We’re not just putting it up in our juvenile justice publications for people who are already in tune with the juvenile justice world,” Balis said. “This is a call to the nation, saying ‘Let’s close youth prisons.’ I really don’t think it’s a new message, but we’re saying it louder, and we’re saying it to more people.”
Balis said there’s no “clear dividing line” that separates a youth prison from another facility, but there is a general outline: a lockup with 100 or more beds and “prison-like” architecture, with a “rigid, impersonal” environment for those housed there, where academic or therapeutic functions take a back-row seat to security.
“None of these are to say that any one facility embodies all of those things, but those are things that become characteristic of facilities,” Balis said. States like Missouri, though, where juvenile justice reforms have become a model for other states, have showed that even secure facilities for kids who have committed serious crimes can be run without abuse, he said. It’s not just that there’s no solitary confinement or pepper spray: “There has to be a focus on youth development in a way that’s changing the whole orientation of the places.
“Study after study, we can see what works, whether it’s in the community or in a facility, it begins with relationships,” he said. “And part of the challenge of the prison-like places is it’s very hard to imagine building relationships in such a coercive environment, where the threat of violence sort of looms over everything.”
Casey’s latest report calls on states to move aggressively to replace the model that has dominated the juvenile justice system for a century with one that will ensure “safe, healthy and therapeutic care for the small segment of the youth population who truly require confinement.”
It doesn’t call for closing detention centers for teens who are awaiting their day in court, though it calls mistreatment “disturbingly commonplace” in those facilities as well.
“We were all kind of surprised at the proposal in the first place, because it seems to be black-and-white, which doesn’t seem typical for Casey,” said Anne Nelsen, of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, an association of youth services workers. “Casey has done so much wonderful work to try to improve the quality of facilities and institutions. This seems like really drawing the line.”
The conditions outlined in the report aren’t terribly surprising to researchers, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Decades of studies have documented the tension between the role of juvenile lockup as a service provider and its role as an instrument of control — and when those two missions collide, “control and suppression will always win,” he said.
The current system, which grew out of the reform schools of the late 19th century, has survived because it’s less expensive than what Casey is urging states to adopt, he said.
“It’s much cheaper to get 100 kids who need some help and drag them all into one place and only have a handful of people working with them than it is to create a network system, where you can reach all of them in their own homes and check up on them at school,” said Butts, who said he has butted heads with the Casey Foundation in the past.
With juvenile crime at its lowest level in decades, many youth correctional centers have a lot of empty beds or are being closed outright. That might give calls to close them down wholesale a boost, Butts said. But he and Nelsen, of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, warned that public opinion — and the politicians who fund the system — can be fickle.
“Politically, it’s not going to fly,” said Nelsen, a retired juvenile corrections administrator in Utah and a member of the group’s executive committee. “The public’s not going to go along with it, even with the very best intentions, and I think Casey has the very best intentions. All it would take is one well-publicized offense by a juvenile who was in a community-based program because the state institution closed, and the politicians behind that decision would pay the price.”
Nelsen said the NPJS is discussing how to respond to the Casey report, but she called the proposal unrealistic. The new report ignores the progress that many states have made in improving juvenile services, closing old state reformatories and replacing them with programs that keep youths closer to their homes and families, she said.
There’s also the risk that centers could be shut down without funding for the follow-up services that would be required, she said. And some kids may need to be locked up for a period of time to get the help they need, Nelsen said.
“None of us would ever support institutionalizing children who don’t need institutional care, and I think we’re all aware of plenty of instances where institutions get used — or overused — for kids who could be served better or more effectively or less expensively in the community,” she said.
“However, I think what’s bothersome is the report seems to imply that all institutions are really bad, period, and there are good institutions, there are good facilities out there that are doing good work for kids,” Nelsen said. Casey should focus instead on how good facilities get results and show how other states can follow their model, she said.
The document is a follow-up to “No Place for Kids,” the group’s 2011 assessment of conditions in juvenile correctional centers nationwide. Four years on, the study found 29 states were unable to prevent what it called “systemic abuse” to children in post-commitment facilities, with “substantial evidence of maltreatment” in three more.
It also described “an epidemic” of sexual abuse, citing a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey on the topic that found that more than 10 percent of young people had been victimized sexually by staff or other youth. And administrators relied too heavily on solitary confinement and restraints to subdue unruly kids, it said.
Balis acknowledged that what Casey is calling for is “an aspiration,” and that the step would require answers to some budget and workforce questions. But he said politicians and taxpayers should be asking themselves why they would want to keep open facilities that study after study says don’t keep the public safe.
“This is not a thing that’s going to happen overnight,” he said. “But we believe that just as no one would have predicted 20 years ago that we would have a continuous decline of incarceration of kids in general, I think as a system, we are moving in this direction — and the time is ripe right now.”