Closing the Door on Juvenile Lockups

Fifteen-year-old Frank and his brother Joseph had gotten into fights before, but this one was different. When the two started throwing punches one day in December 2008, their mother Nancy tried to intervene. Frank responded by hitting and kicking her, and then pinned her head against the wall.

Ordinarily, that would have landed Frank in a juvenile jail. Instead, he was sentenced to 18 months probation and enrollment in a New York City program cheerily named Blue Sky, a joint venture of the city and a local nonprofit that provides targeted therapy for Frank and his family at home. Today, Frank goes to school and works part time, and his aggressive behavior, according to program staff, is a thing of the past.

Across the country, states are moving delinquent youth out of huge juvenile lockups and, in the best cases, into local alternative programs like Blue Sky. That trend represents a hard-won victory for advocates of reform. But local control sometimes comes with pitfalls that some reformers say could make a teen offender's fate a matter of geographical chance rather than deliberate policy.

Frank's experience is par for the course for Blue Sky, which serves only kids who have been arrested and deemed delinquent. The program allows almost 70 percent of the youth it serves to remain at home and costs $17,000 per case, compared with the $266,000 that the state spends annually per youth in confinement. The felony rearrest rate for youth served by the program a year after they leave is 18 percent; by comparison, the state's felony rearrest rate after two years is 42 percent. (The state doesn't keep one-year figures.)

But the program is more than a promising new approach; it's also an argument for local control.

To save money and address long-standing abuse in juvenile detention centers, New York and most other states have been reducing the number of youth they confine, turning more responsibility over to cities and counties. The governors of California and Arizona have gone one step further, proposing to shut down their states' juvenile corrections agencies completely. In Oregon, the new Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, wants to eliminate half of the state's juvenile jail beds. In Ohio, the number of youth held by the state youth corrections agency is less than half of what it was three years ago.

That's good news, given the shocking conditions in youth prisons. A 2010 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 13 percent of kids in state lockups are sexually abused, most often by staff. Reports of other mistreatment -- hog-tying, shackling, overuse of pepper spray -- are widespread. Detainees get few of the services they need: Another 2010 Department of Justice study found that though 70 percent have experienced trauma and more than one in five have tried to commit suicide, fewer than half get any mental-health evaluation at all. The outcomes are tragically predictable when youth are released: Recidivism rates of 70 percent to 80 percent within two or three years are common in states across the country. And for those results, taxpayers in many states shell out at least $200,000 per youth per year.

There's a mound of evidence that kids are better off when they're taken out of such lockups and put into locally run programs. For example, in 1994 Ohio began giving juvenile courts financial incentives to treat youth offenders locally rather than sending them to state juvenile prisons. The program has had striking success: A 2005 evaluation found that, except for a small very high-risk group, Ohio youth kept out of detention centers had a recidivism rate one-sixth to one-half that of youth put in confinement.

But some reformers say local control over juvenile justice has to be approached with caution. Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, applauds the move away from state lockups. But he says giving control to localities is "fraught with complicated issues," and he fears that we're in danger of creating a system of "justice by geography."

"You have a range of local options in California," he says. "Some are not too bad; some are horrendous."

Krisberg points to Los Angeles County, where kids confined in the county's probation camps have suffered "systemic physical abuse of youth by staff," according to a 2008 Justice Department investigation. Conditions in some local Louisiana lockups are similar: A March 2010 Justice Department investigation of Terrebonne Parish's detention center found sexual misconduct by staff and "a pervasive atmosphere of excessive force and violence."

Those results argue that turning troubled youth over to counties is no cure-all. When localities place them into treatment and rehabilitation programs, they are better-off. But when, as in parts of California and Louisiana, kids end up in mega-detention centers, they're likely to face the same mistreatment and neglect as in state lockups. Krisberg argues that greater federal oversight could bring consistency to treatment of youth in various localities.

There are other indications that simply shutting down state lockups moves only partway toward real reform. If state facilities are shut down but savings aren't passed on to counties, they won't have the services they need to help released youth stay on track. In Arizona, Beth Rosenberg of the Children's Action Alliance said that while the group favors keeping youth closer to home and believes that large lockups are not best for kids, it opposes Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's proposal to eliminate the state juvenile agency. That's because the governor isn't planning to send money the state would save to the counties. (After furious opposition, Brewer has since floated a revised plan that would give part of the funds to rural counties.)

Rosenberg and Krisberg have another concern if counties are denied resources they need to give rehabilitation services to the small percentage of youth who do pose a danger -- they may opt to prosecute more of them in adult courts. Indeed, even as the number of youth in California state lockups has declined since 2005, the number prosecuted as adults more than doubled from 2005 to 2009, according to figures from the California attorney general's office. An analysis in February by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice concluded that in 23 California counties, prosecution of youth as adults could significantly increase if all state-run lockups are shut down. The report recommended that, should state youth prisons be eliminated, those counties be given resources and technical support to develop local rehabilitative services for released youth.

"We should not as a nation be in a situation where judges or communities feel like their choice is nothing or an adult prison," says Tracy Velazquez of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, which advocates for alternatives to incarceration. "As we start to downsize juvenile facilities, which is critical, we need to make sure that communities have the alternatives they need to both protect public safety and get kids on track."

It's been a while since states and localities have gotten much federal help to provide such alternatives. Since 2002, the budget for the DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which administers funding for state and local prevention programs, has plunged 90 percent. Allocations for two federal delinquency-prevention funding streams dropped by 16 percent and 34 percent during the same period.

At least one private funder has been filling the gap: In 34 states, the Annie E. Casey Foundation supports local programs like Blue Sky that offer alternatives to detention. And an emerging push-back to the federal cuts has made for some strange bedfellows. In February, the Smart on Crime Coalition, whose members range from the Heritage Foundation to the ACLU, issued recommendations for the administration and Congress. Among other suggestions, the group urges the restoration of OJJDP's budget to 2002 levels. It's a hint that policy-makers of all shades could be swayed by mounting evidence that juvenile diversion programs are the essence of smaller, more effective government -- if administered properly.

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