March 16, 2011

Economy, abuse scandals drive sea change in US juvie lockups

As USA Today’s Martha Moore reports:

 States sending juvenile delinquents back where they came from

Photo credit: Richard Ross
California, seeking to close a $26 billion deficit, and New York, with a $10 billion budget gap, are moving to close state youth prisons for good and instead let local governments 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….

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.

Photo credit: Richard Ross
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 offenders.

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.

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 are broken, he says. "What you want to do with a 14-, 15-year-old is build on what connections already exist."

Photo credit: Richard Ross
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 expert.

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….

Photo credit: Richard Ross
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." …

County programs have their own problems. Los Angeles' youth detention system has already been investigated by the Justice Department.

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?"

The full story is HERE.

Photos are from Richard Ross's marvelous exhibit, Juvenile-in-Justice (HERE).

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