Lessons From New York City’s Efforts to Close Youth Prisons

Posted March 16, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young woman at a subway station

The grow­ing num­ber of states and coun­ties look­ing to replace youth incar­cer­a­tion with more effec­tive com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vices and sup­port have much to learn from New York’s suc­cess­es and mis­steps, accord­ing to a new case study fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Mov­ing Beyond Youth Pris­ons, from Colum­bia University’s Jus­tice Lab, lays out how New York City has trans­formed its youth jus­tice sys­tem over the last decade, fol­low­ing a U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions at state-oper­at­ed facil­i­ties. Through its Close to Home juve­nile jus­tice reform ini­tia­tive, the city has dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduced incar­cer­a­tion, expand­ed the array of non-res­i­den­tial alter­na­tives and estab­lished small local res­i­den­tial programs.

Read about the momen­tum build­ing in states to end the youth prison model

As its name sug­gests, Close to Home aims to keep young peo­ple close to and con­nect­ed with their fam­i­lies, schools and com­mu­ni­ties. Since its imple­men­ta­tion, juve­nile arrest rates have dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly and pos­i­tive indi­ca­tors — such as aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance — have improved.

New York City lead­ers under­stood, first and fore­most, that most jus­tice-involved young peo­ple who were being sent to far away youth pris­ons would be bet­ter off not just close to home, but in their homes receiv­ing ser­vices and sup­ports in their com­mu­ni­ties,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group who led a team from Casey that worked with the city’s youth-serv­ing agen­cies dur­ing the initiative’s plan­ning and ear­ly-imple­men­ta­tion phas­es. They were per­sis­tent in their pur­suit of a nar­row­er pipeline of young peo­ple into the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, inno­v­a­tive prac­tices and pro­grams serv­ing as alter­na­tives to place­ment, and a con­tin­u­um of res­i­den­tial pro­grams that could sup­port youth in or near their home com­mu­ni­ties — not hun­dreds of miles away.”

The case study rec­om­mends that juris­dic­tions involve youth, their fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, advo­cates and ser­vice providers in redesign­ing their juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. It offers sev­er­al lessons, includ­ing the following:

  • Use incre­men­tal reforms to set the stage for more sweep­ing changes.
  • Make the cost and cur­rent state of youth pris­ons vis­i­ble to key polit­i­cal leaders.
  • Expand non-res­i­den­tial solu­tions instead of plan­ning for one-for-one replace­ment of bed capacity.
  • Have a com­mon vision of what you want your future sys­tem to look like.
  • Com­bine a sense of urgency with tak­ing time to imple­ment things the right way.
  • Cre­ate an over­ar­ch­ing set of mea­sures to track progress toward achiev­ing the reform vision.

Close to Home’s lessons are time­ly for pub­lic offi­cials, advo­cates and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers grap­pling with sim­i­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. Wis­con­sin is one exam­ple. Local advo­cates and offi­cials are push­ing to close the state’s two remain­ing youth pris­ons, which are under state and fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tions for pris­on­er abuse and child neglect and face mul­ti­ple lawsuits.

Lead­ers at the state and local lev­el in Wis­con­sin have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to trans­form youth jus­tice accord­ing to their own bold vision,” says Balis. I hope Close to Home inspires them to pri­or­i­tize youth thriv­ing in their own com­mu­ni­ties over incarceration.”

The Foun­da­tion fund­ed anoth­er report on Close to Home from the Cen­ter for Children’s Law and Pol­i­cy last year. It, too, offered lessons for oth­er juris­dic­tions. Among them:

  • More plan­ning time could have avoid­ed many ini­tial problems.
  • Close to Home had to rely on rela­tion­ships with some providers that had lit­tle or no expe­ri­ence with juve­nile jus­tice — a fact that pre­sent­ed short-term chal­lenges but offered longer-term benefits.
  • More com­mu­ni­ca­tion with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers — above and beyond the required pub­lic forums and com­ment peri­ods — was need­ed pri­or to choos­ing loca­tions and open­ing group homes.

Read more about the results of Close to Home in New York

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