Can We Improve Outcomes for Justice-involved Youth by Keeping Them Closer to Home?

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community-based programs: Sad teenager boy worried looking through window


Everyone who has ever watched a movie, read popular crime fiction or who has even a layperson’s knowledge of the criminal justice system has probably heard the phrase “being sent up the river.” Its origin is a reference to Sing Sing Prison, north of New York City on the Hudson River.

The phrase evokes images not only of being imprisoned, but of being dispatched to a place that is distant, and very different from home. The removal and isolation of the convicted served several purposes: They could reflect on their crimes, be reformed and rehabilitated or have punishment meted out far from scrutiny. This isolation, as we know, sometimes led to abuses of power by correctional systems, and later made it much more difficult for incarcerated men and women to reintegrate into society.

community-based programs: Marie Williams (headshot), senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation, smiling woman with necklace, earrings, pink top

Marie Williams

Today, by and large, we still remove and isolate men and women from their communities when they have been convicted and sentenced to serve time. And, frankly, most of us in society prefer it that way. The preservation of our quality of life and our safety seems to demand it. Unfortunately, in juvenile justice, we have largely followed this trend, even though in most circumstances taking children out of their communities and sending them far away is neither humane nor effective.

Distant placements promote inequity 

Sending children far from home complicates and exacerbates inequities in the administration of justice. In most states, the “feeders” of the juvenile justice system tend to be urban centers where a disproportionate number of minorities often live. For various reasons, juvenile justice facilities also reflect this disproportionality. Yet, those facilities are often located in communities that are very different racially, ethnically and culturally than most of the young people who are sent there. This can make it challenging for staff to understand, empathize and work with the population in their care.

Anecdotally, defense counsel, advocates and practitioners report that urban youth often have difficulties acclimating and assimilating to rural or semirural settings, schools and sensibilities. Many in limited secure placements run away, others wrack up multiple infractions for failure to conform to highly subjective standards for “appropriate behavior” or “compliance.” As a result, stays and ultimate system involvement for minority youth can be prolonged.

The data also show that black and brown children are placed in secure confinement at a greater rate and for longer periods of time than their white counterparts, even though in more than two-thirds of cases, their placement is for nonviolent offenses, or technical violations of probation. Given this, their confinement and the distance from their home communities serve no public safety purpose.

Distant placements don’t help prepare for success

Distant out-of-home placements are also ineffective from a restorative or reformative standpoint. For example, system-involved children are often disconnected from schooling, a fact that becomes significant when one considers that educational attainment can be predictive of future delinquency and criminal justice involvement in adulthood. Some estimates place at 70 percent the justice-involved young people who have educational disabilities, be they emotional disturbances or learning disabilities, making appropriate educational services crucial.

Yet, in many jurisdictions, the schooling received in facilities is sporadic and may be unrelated to the curriculum requirements of the young people’s home districts. It is not uncommon in Pennsylvania, for instance, for Philadelphia’s young people to return home to find that credits obtained while incarcerated are nontransferable to the School District of Philadelphia. The consequences for youth — who already find school challenging — of this kind of motivational setback are immeasurable.

Placements far from home may also make it difficult after incarceration for young people to reconnect and reintegrate in a positive and prosocial manner. Difficulties with their families, for example, cannot be adequately addressed through Functional Family Therapy and similar interventions if family members find it cost- or time-prohibitive to visit. This can make a return home filled with anxiety and tension for the young person and their family members.

Distant placements are cost-ineffective

Placing children out-of-home and far from home is also significantly more expensive than community-based programming. In Pennsylvania, juvenile justice placements can cost upwards of $300,000 per year per young person. Nationally, the cost to incarcerate young people is in the billions of dollars even though there are fewer than 50,000 children nationally being held in juvenile facilities. And, as previously mentioned, most are there for nonviolent offenses and arguably, did not need to be placed out of home at all. Comparatively, according to the Justice Policy Institute (“The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense”) community-based programs can yield up to $13 in benefits to public safety for every dollar spent.

Distant placements don’t rehabilitate 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, confinement of young people, particularly far from home, is ineffective. The outcomes for children placed in juvenile justice facilities are far worse than those who are allowed to remain in the community. Some estimates place recidivism of young people who were confined at 75 percent within three years after their release. Recognizing the failure of incarceration to address the root causes of juvenile delinquency all across the country, jurisdictions have begun to explore new approaches, alternatives to old-style, up-the-river incarceration.

The Close to Home framework

In 2012, the New York State Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized one such new approach, an initiative called “Close to Home.” Close to Home was designed to ensure that the state’s juvenile justice system implemented practices consistent with the best research on how to effectively work with young people. The core principle of the approach was simply a recognition that justice-involved youth fare better when they remain connected to their families and communities.

From that principle sprung seven others: 1) public safety; 2) accountability; 3) evidence-based and evidence-informed treatment; 4) educational continuity and achievement; 5) community integration; 6) family engagement and collaboration, and 7) permanency.

After several challenging years, during which the state struggled to develop a continuum of services and placements in the Greater New York area as a replacement for far-flung facilities, Close to Home has succeeded in its two principal goals: 1) removing New York City’s youth from large, dangerous, expensive and ineffective facilities far from their homes; and 2) bringing the majority of New York City’s justice-involved youth home to the city, or the immediate area. Between 2016 and 2017, the state also saw other significant accomplishments, including a 41 percent decrease in AWOLs from limited secure placements, a 38 percent decrease in physical incidents, a 93 percent academic achievement rate and a 91 percent participation rate in community supervision programs.

The New York experience is by no means a template. It does however provide a framework for other jurisdictions to begin with the proposition that rather than sending them up the river, we might improve outcomes for our young people by keeping them closer to home.

The path was not an easy one, however. In the first two years of the program, as providers and young people struggled to adjust to the new reality, there were more than 1,000 AWOLs and even one high-profile crime in which a man was tragically killed. Facilities reported physical altercations resulting in the use of restraints and there were hundreds of arrests. But New York stayed the course. By 2016 — 2017, the state saw significant progress, including a 41 percent decrease in AWOLs from limited secure placements, a 38 percent decrease in physical incidents, a 93 percent academic achievement rate, and a 91 percent participation rate in community supervision programs.

Still, the state legislature opted not to fund the program going forward, contending that New York City, rather than the state, should bear the responsibility of funding it. This raises questions for other jurisdictions considering an approach such as this, including how localities might push for language in authorizing legislation committing the state not to punish success with reduced appropriations.

The New York experience is certainly a mixed bag, and by no means is their path a template. It does, however, provide a framework for other jurisdictions to begin with the proposition that rather than sending young people up the river, we just might improve their outcomes by keeping them closer to home.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

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