Six Lessons Learned From Successful Campaigns to Close Youth Prisons

Posted March 28, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog sixlessonslearnedfrom 2017

Richard Ross for Juvenile in Justice

States across the coun­try have suc­cess­ful­ly cam­paigned to close youth pris­ons and design bet­ter ways to help young peo­ple in need access guid­ance, edu­ca­tion and sup­port to help get their lives back on track.

A report by the Youth First Ini­tia­tive, which receives sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, zeroes in on six such cam­paigns in Cal­i­for­nia, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sip­pi, New York and Texas. It draws from pub­lic doc­u­ments and inter­views with juve­nile jus­tice stake­hold­ers and advo­cates as well as incar­cer­at­ed youth and their fam­i­lies to share crit­i­cal lessons learned.

The six lessons out­lined in the report, Break­ing Down the Walls, are:

  1. Take the long view. Suc­cess­ful cam­paigns to close youth pris­ons are gen­er­al­ly mul­ti­year efforts that expe­ri­ence inevitable set­backs. Rec­og­niz­ing incre­men­tal progress is an impor­tant step on the road to trans­for­ma­tive change;
  2. Let youth and fam­i­lies lead. The sto­ries and expe­ri­ences of incar­cer­at­ed young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies can strength­en the reform efforts of advo­cates, attor­neys and oth­ers. In sev­er­al states, this lived exper­tise played a cen­tral role in shap­ing cam­paign strategy;
  3. Be explic­it about racial injus­tice. Research shows that youth of col­or are incar­cer­at­ed at much high­er rates than white youth who engage in sim­i­lar con­duct. Explic­it­ly address­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties was essen­tial to the suc­cess of some campaigns;
  4. Embrace diver­si­ty and plan for con­flict. Effec­tive coali­tions include a wide range of juve­nile jus­tice stake­hold­ers who inevitably dis­agree. Open, hon­est and some­times hard con­ver­sa­tions can help resolve these conflicts;
  5. Statewide reform needs local stake­hold­ers. Town hall meet­ings, lis­ten­ing ses­sions and oth­er forms of local engage­ment can build a strong foun­da­tion for statewide efforts to close youth pris­ons. Make sure coun­ty and com­mu­ni­ty stake­hold­ers are aware of state actions affect­ing their young peo­ple; and
  6. Har­ness the pow­er of pub­lic opin­ion and the media. The per­sis­tent rep­e­ti­tion of sim­ple, con­sis­tent mes­sages can com­mu­ni­cate goals and pro­vide a statewide iden­ti­ty. For exam­ple: Close Tal­lu­lah Now!” was an effec­tive ral­ly­ing cry for clos­ing an abu­sive facil­i­ty in Louisiana.

Anoth­er hall­mark of suc­cess­ful cam­paigns to close youth pris­ons is the abil­i­ty to lever­age data and evi­dence, accord­ing to Gladys Car­rión, the for­mer com­mis­sion­er of New York City’s Admin­is­tra­tion for Children’s Ser­vices. Under Car­rión’s watch, the city’s child wel­fare sys­tem enact­ed reforms that were dri­ven by research and sci­ence and sup­port­ed by evi­dence of what works,” she recalls.

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