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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