States making juvenile detention more localized
Driven by budget problems, states are trying to send juvenile delinquents back where they came from.
California, seeking to close a $26 billion deficit, and New York, with a $10 billition budget gap, are moving to close state youth prisons for good and instead let local govermnets lock up young offenders.
State youth lockups are easy targets for
cost-cutters and reformers: They cost a lot and, according to data
showing high rates of repeat offenders, accomplish little.
"There isn't a whole lot of evidence that
state-run juvenile correction systems can be anything other than very
expensive, ineffective and scandal-prone," says Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation,
which promotes alternatives to incarceration for kids. New York has
been under pressure to improve its juvenile justice system since a 2009
federal investigation — sparked by the death of a 15-year-old boy —
found that state youth prisons used excessive force. States including
Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania have reduced the number of kids sent to
state lockups by offering financial incentives to counties to keep
youthful offenders in local programs. Ohio, for instance, has reduced
the number of juveniles in state lockups from almost 1,800 in 2007 to
736 this year.
But New York City and California would go a step further by virtually eliminating the state's role.
California once had the largest number of young
people in lockups: from 10,000 in 2005 to 1,200 now. It has cut that
number dramatically after a 2007 law required the release of non-violent
Gov. Jerry Brown's
budget called for the state to close its four juvenile prisons,
currently housing about 1,200 youths, by 2014 and send money to the
state's 58 counties to run their own lockups. After protests from
counties, a revised proposal announced last week would keep some state
youth prisons open and allow counties without secure lockups for youths
to pay to send kids to the state juvenile prison. Counties that want to
run their own youth lockups could use state money to do that instead.
"We're on a pathway to the end of the state
system," says David Steinhart of Commonweal, a California advocacy
group, who helped write the 2007 law. "The argument now is how to write
the final chapter."
In New York, where 700 youths are in state lockups, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to close juvenile prisons despite local opposition over lost
jobs. Meanwhile, New York City, which accounts for more than half the
youths in state custody at a cost of $270,000 per youth per year, wants
to opt out of the state system entirely.
A system run by the city — with funding from the
state — would be cheaper and more effective if only because it would be
nearby, says John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"Some of these kids have tough relationship with the families, but what
you don't want to do is break those relationships any further than they
he says. "What you want to do with a 14-, 15-year-old is build on what connections already exist."
The city's plan is modeled on Detroit, which
began handling almost all its juvenile cases in 2000 and where the
number of youth sent to state facilities dropped from more than 730 in
1998 to 18 in 2009.
The proposals have roused opposition from people
who don't want to see jobs lost when state youth prisons close. And
juvenile justice advocates are divided on whether it's a good idea to
get rid of the state programs altogether.
"I've seen too many kids die because the state
wasn't appropriately regulating what was going on at the local level,"
says Barry Krisberg, a Berkeley law professor and juvenile justice
Counties in California say they cannot handle
more kids, especially the violent offenders still in state youth
prisons. "You're asking them to take back kids that they've rejected.
It's like asking the school principal to take back the kids that they've
expelled," says Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on
Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, an advocacy group.
Advocates fear that losing the state youth
prisons mean that county prosecutors will increasingly charge juveniles
in adult court. The number of juveniles tried as adults has already
increased in California. Even though state youth prisons are bad,
advocates say, prisons are worse.
Youth prisons are located in economically
depressed rural counties where jobs are scarce. Unions representing
staff at youth prisons oppose closing the facilities because jobs will
be lost. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to overturn a law that
requires a year's notice before a facility can be shut down.
"It's all about closing facilities. ... Match the
number of beds to the number of kids," says Elizabeth Glazer, New
York's deputy secretary for public safety. "The notion that we are
keeping open empty facilities, guarding imaginary children, is just not
Some advocates say the California state youth
agency has been so bad for so long that it should be scrapped for good.
"Right now we're dooming them all to certain hell." says Jakadi Imani,
executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.
Eliminating the state system means "we open up the possibility that
kids will actually get help."
But others pointed out that some counties have too few serious youth offenders to merit building a juvenile lockup.
"You're going to have a lot of counties that
aren't going to have the capacity to develop a small, secure program,"
says Ned Loughran, executive director of the Association of State
County programs have their own problems. Los
Angeles' youth detention system has already been investigated by the
Alameda County, where Oakland is located, will
build a youth lockup to accommodate kids that would have gone to state
youth prisons, says David Muhammad, the county's head of probation. "A
huge concern is, you close (the state agency) completely, fund the
counties to supervise this population but only fund it for five years.
What happens after that?"
New York City would have to build a secure youth
prison, Feinblatt says. It is not proposing to end the incarceration
juvenile delinquents. "Bringing kids back to the city does not mean
bringing kids back to New York City streets," Feinblatt says. "It
doesn't mean that there are some kids that won't be incarcerated. Some
of them will be because they need to be."