Prison for kids doesn’t work, and good alternatives are out there

Los Angeles Times

Imagine a California without youth prisons because we don’t need them anymore.

Young people would still make mistakes, some of them tragic. But instead of being taken from their families and schools, they would receive community-based counseling, mentoring, job training and opportunities that build on their strengths, enabling them to become productive adults. The limited number of youth at risk of harming others would go to small, secure therapeutic residential treatment centers near their communities.

This vision is within reach in California and other states. Indeed, California has made significant progress since the “lock ’em up” days of the 1990s. Arrest rates are at a 35-year low, and 50 percent fewer youth are behind bars now than in 1996, as more people understand incarceration does more harm than good. This has led California to a remarkable point: Two-thirds of counties operate half-empty youth lockups.

It’s time to finish the job and replace this ineffective, expensive system with approaches that work. Places such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco are showing the way with programs that successfully support young people in community settings. In Los Angeles County, which holds 25 percent of the state’s incarcerated youth, supervisors have requested a comprehensive plan for community-based alternatives to arrest and incarceration.

These moves mirror a national trend. Youth incarceration dropped 50 percent from 1999 to 2013, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. At the same time, public safety hasn’t been compromised, as evidenced by a drop in felony charges against young people. Instead, places from Portland, Ore., to New York City have created a strong continuum of community-based programs and services for young people who get in trouble with the law.

Solutions include diversion options, such as assessment centers in Toledo, Ohio, which connect youth charged with misdemeanors with community programs rather than processing them through courts. Restorative justice programs – used in several California counties – successfully hold youth accountable for their actions and address victims’ needs. A mentoring model in New York involves individuals who were in the system in helping neighborhood youth turn their lives around.

The reality is that incarcerating youth yields poor results. It increases their chances of being in prison as adults, reduces their likelihood of graduating from high school and worsens their health long term.

And who are these young people? Over three-quarters are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, which means they don’t threaten public safety. They are disproportionately youth of color, often sentenced for offenses for which their white peers are not. Many are victims of trauma themselves: A high percentage of incarcerated young women have been sexually abused and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Besides the incalculable loss of human potential, youth prisons cost California taxpayers more than $1 billion annually. In Los Angeles County, that translates to a yearly cost of $247,000 per youth, compared to community-based alternatives with better outcomes that cost one-tenth as much.

Systems are hard to change. But those who doubt whether moving large institutions from punishment to prevention is possible need only look at California’s public schools.

Five years ago, schools began tackling the overuse of harsh discipline such as suspensions, which increased dropout rates and justice system involvement. Today, nearly half of the state’s school districts received top ratings for lowering suspension rates, according to a recent EdSource analysis, and high school graduation rates have reached a record 83 percent.

Replacing youth prisons with community-based alternatives is the next bold move that California and other states must make so that, a generation from now, students will be shocked to learn America used to put young people in prison.

Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment and can be contacted at Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and can be contacted at