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The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model
By Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi and Miriam Shark
Published: 11/14/2016

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The following has been reprinted from a bulletin posted by the National Institute of Justice and the Harvard Kennedy School Titled "New Thinking in Community Corrections", October 2016 - No. 2.

Executive Session on Community Corrections

This is one in a series of papers that will be published as a result of the Executive Session on Community Corrections.

The Executive Sessions at Harvard Kennedy School bring together individuals of independent standing who take joint responsibility for rethinking and improving society’s responses to an issue. Members are selected based on their experiences, their reputation for thoughtfulness, and their potential for helping to disseminate the work of the Session.

Members of the Executive Session on Community Corrections have come together with the aim of developing a new paradigm for correctional policy at a historic time for criminal justice reform. The Executive Session works to explore the role of community corrections and communities in the interest of justice and public safety.

Learn more about the Executive Session on Community Corrections at:

NIJ’s website: www.NIJ.gov, keywords “Executive Session Community Corrections”

Harvard’s website: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/criminaljustice/communitycorrections


[F]airly viewed, pretrial detention of a juvenile gives rise to injuries comparable to those associated with the imprisonment of an adult.
—Justice Thurgood Marshall

It is, in all but name, a penitentiary.
—Justice Hugo L. Black

Is America getting what it wants and needs by incarcerating in youth prisons young people who get in trouble with the law?

If not, is there a better way?

For 170 years, since our first youth correctional institution opened, America’s approach to youth incarceration has been built on the premise that a slightly modified version of the adult correctional model of incarceration, control, coercion, and punishment — with a little bit of programming sprinkled in — would rehabilitate young people. Sometimes the names attempt to camouflage the nature of the facility, but whether they are called “training schools” or “youth centers,” nearly all of these facilities are youth prisons[1].

Whether the benefits and costs of youth prisons are weighed on a scale of public dollars, community safety, or young people’s futures, they are damaging the very people they are supposed to help and have been for generations. It is difficult to find an area of U.S. policy where the benefits and costs are more out of balance, where the evidence of failure is clearer, or where we know with more clarity what we should be doing differently.

This ill-conceived and outmoded approach is a failure, with high costs and recidivism rates and institutional conditions that are often appalling. Our approach to youth in trouble with the law requires a watershed change to one that is more effective, more informed by evidence of what works, more likely to protect public safety, more developmentally appropriate, more humane, and more community based. Every youth prison in the country should be closed and replaced with a network of community based programs and small facilities near the youth’s communities. Closing these failed institutions requires a clear-headed, common-sense, bipartisan policy approach, and a commitment to replace these facilities with effective alternatives that are already available.


Around 170 years ago, with the opening of Massachusetts’ Lyman School for Boys in 1846 (Miller, 1991), American reformers began experimenting with a “new” approach to troubled youth (Schiraldi, Schindler, and Goliday, 2011). As the social and economic forces of the time brought more rural and immigrant families into America’s urban environments, philanthropists and child advocates of the 1800s struggled to resolve what they saw as rising misbehavior by the young, urban poor (Krisberg and Austin, 1993).

In a departure from the primacy of the family as the principal foundation of social control, reformers of the time turned to a new and untested institution — the reformatory. Viewed alternately as a humane response to poorhouses and prisons or as a means to control and punish unruly immigrant youth, “reform schools” became increasingly popular as a government response to what was perceived as a rising threat from ungovernable urban juveniles (Siegel and Senna, 1985). This struggle between the humanistic and punitive instincts of the youth justice system and its facilities is evident to the present day, and was woven into its very creation (Platt, 1977; Butts and Mitchell, 2000).

Reliance on these large, congregate facilities has resulted in scandalous abuses, unconstitutional conditions, and poor public safety outcomes almost since their inception, sometimes despite yeoman efforts to improve them. Although they were founded with great fanfare to remove wayward youth from city streets and reform them in rural environments, the facilities quickly revealed many of the ills that plague them to this day. Cruelly regimented schedules were enforced by whippings and isolation. Youth were leased out to sometimes harsh working conditions, leading to accusations of profiteering and concerns that cheap inmate labor was depressing wages. Although nominally dedicated to helping turn young people’s lives around, many facilities were merely warehouses, with scant differences from their adult cousin — the penitentiary (Rothman, 1980). Furthermore, the majority of youth confined in these 19th-century institutions were incarcerated not for law violations, but for status offenses such as running away from home and ungovernability.

Ironically, the zeal of Progressive Era reformers in the early 1900s may have served to justify and increase the use of institutions, renamed “reform schools” by Progressives to paint on them a more professionalized and hopeful veneer. After the founding of the first separate court for juveniles in Chicago in 1899, besieged wardens found solace in the court’s rehabilitative ethos as a defense for their beleaguered institutions, and admission rates rose in the aftermath of the new court’s inception (Rothman, 1980).

Despite their problems, youth prisons and the less formal court environments endured side by side without significant changes until the 1960s. That is when concern that youth were neither being helped to get back on track nor provided due process protections led to a raft of landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court granting youth, for example, the rights to counsel, to confront witnesses, and to be “adjudicated delinquent” (the juvenile system’s euphemism for “convicted”) with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Concerned that the rehabilitative ethic of the court was a poor excuse to deny due process to youth accused of crimes, the court wrote that juveniles in family court got the “worst of both worlds” — “neither the protection accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”

Responses to the drug epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with a spike in violent youth crime, ushered in an era of even more stringent approaches to youth incarceration. Public fear was stoked by media coverage and by “tough-on-crime” stances taken by many public officials. Social scientists such as James A. Fox, John DiIulio, and others promulgated doomsday scenarios. In 1995, for example, Fox predicted a “bloodbath in about 10 years.”2 In 1996, DiIulio predicted that there would be “270,000 more young predators on the streets” (DiIulio, 1996). Pronouncements like these were wrapped in racialized, demonizing language that further inflamed public alarm. “The black kids who inspire the fear seem not merely unrecognizable but alien,” wrote DiIulio (1996), calling young people who came into contact with the justice system “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” (Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters, 1996). The most memorable and damaging description was “superpredator” (DiIulio, 1995).

Neither Fox nor DiIulio noted that violent youth crime had actually begun to decline a few years earlier. It has been plummeting ever since. Violent crime arrests of youth dropped by 68 percent between 1994 and 2014, and youth homicides, which peaked in 1993, have declined by 83 percent since then.

Although Fox and DiIulio have since acknowledged that their predictions were based on faulty analyses and recanted, the damage was done. The public was encouraged to see young people not as individuals who had gotten off track and needed help but as scary, dehumanized predators from whom they needed to be protected at all costs. Policymakers responded to DiIulio’s exhortation that we “will need to incarcerate at least 150,000 juvenile criminals in the years ahead” (DiIulio, 1995), resulting in record numbers of young people confined in adult-style prisons and giving rise to a wave of youth prison construction. For example, at the heart of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was a program that provided billions in federal funds for states to build or renovate prisons. With this funding, more than half of the states built, expanded, or renovated youth prisons and detention facilities, and contracted for additional detention and correctional beds. For example, California spent $250 million of those funds to build nearly 3,500 beds in 38 counties (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2012). The number of youth in juvenile prisons peaked in 1999 at 109,000. Even though youth crime and youth incarceration have been steadily declining since the mid-1990s, we are left with the legacy of this era in the form of deeply ingrained images of young offenders as thugs, policies that still over-rely on incarceration, and youth prisons that stubbornly resist closure efforts, maintaining hundreds of empty beds waiting to be filled.

To view the full report click here.

Patrick McCarthy is President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He previously served as Director of the Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Delaware.

Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. He previously served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and as Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, DC.

Miriam Shark is an Independent Consultant in Portland, Maine. She previously served as Associate Director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance and thoughtful leadership provided by Nate Balis, Director, and the entire Juvenile Justice Strategy Group of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The authors would also like to acknowledge Anamika Dwivedi and Jasper Frank for their excellent research assistance.


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