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a new season

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A New Season For Youth Justice Reform

by Shabnam Javdani, The Huffington Post

July 10, 2016

Summer has begun, and while some kids will be enjoying their first taste of freedom, others will be doing anything but.

On any given day, more than 54,000 youth in the U.S. are being held under lock and key in residential placement facilities. In New York alone, over 1,600 youth are in confinement. And in this current moment, a kid in prison in almost any other State would also be hundreds of miles away from their home. We have essentially taken the structure of the adult corrections system and slapped it on youth.

This should alarm us.

Why have we recreated the adult justice system for youth when we know that youth’s development is different, and so are the reasons behind their offending? Brain science tells us that what all kids need most to truly thrive are stable relationships with family, friends, teachers and community members. The most cutting edge research tells us that these types of consistent relationships can actually buffer the impact of poverty and community violence for those kids who are disproportionately exposed to them due to growing inequalities in income and resource distribution. So why have we taken them away from their homes at this critical time in their development? Whether our goal is to promote public safety, community building, or rehabilitation and healthy development—this is one of the worst things we can do.

There is simply no need for there to be any large non-local prison facilities for youth. These facilities engender practices—like solitary confinement—that have been directly recommended against by global human rights organizations. No good, and only tragedy, comes from this. This summer marks the anniversary of Kalief Browder’s death. Accused of stealing a backpack, Kalief spent 2 of 3 years awaiting trial in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. He committed suicide last June.

The global health community has been crystal clear that these practices are a violation of human rights. And, in no uncertain terms, the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend secure confinement in large facilities as an absolute last resort. Instead, they fully support keeping kids involved with crime closer to their communities. These are promising recommendations. Countries with fewer large youth prisons have much lower rates of youth crime. And, within the US, cities that support community-based alternatives to youth confinement have, on average, lower youth recidivism rates.

NYC is taking this to heart. It is shifting from an adult corrections structure to one in which youth—even after they have been found guilty—can be placed in small, local, residential facilities close to their families and neighborhoods, and attend local schools during their stay. This “close to home” initiative represents a change to the laws that govern how the system responds to youth in NYC. Because they are legislated, they have lasting power.

If a juvenile justice system as large and complex as NYC can take this big step, why aren’t more cities following suit? There is no need for youth prisons. What we do need is a more equitable distribution of resources so that kids can stay close to the relationships and resources that they need to thrive.

NYC’s juvenile justice system is far from perfect, however. We know it is succeeding in actually keeping youth close to home, but that is all we know. We need to know more about how these local facilities work. Are families actually visiting kids more often? Are kids being connected with local services, both during and after their confinement? Are they succeeding more in their local schools? And ultimately, can this initiative result in a reduced rate of recidivism so that fewer kids end up being confined—either inside or outside of the city?

Would placing Kalief closer to home have prevented his death? We don’t know, but we need to find out.

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Shabnam Javdani is the Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. This article was coauthored by Erin Godfrey, Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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7 Responses to “a new season”


  1. 1 Willow54
    July 18, 2016 at 5:03 am

    At last some light at the end of a very long tunnel? Well maybe, but since this plays to the comments I made on this blog a few days ago as regards the punitive nature of the US youth justice system, I felt I had to comment further.

    More power to NYC’s elbow for the small step they have made, but one snowflake does not a winter make as they say. I was staggered to discover over 54000 juveniles are currently incarcerated in your country. This represents around 60% of the entire prison population (adults and juveniles) in my country (Great Britain). I get the impression, the land of the free is a misnomer. More people are locked up per se and for much longer than is strictly necessary for public protection. In regard to juveniles specifically, whilst the stated aims are rehabilitation and reduction in recidivism, the facts seem to speak to some other agenda. Why, for example, are prosecutors allowed to cast juveniles so readily into the adult courts, where if convicted, they will spend many more years behind bars than would otherwise be the case if they had been processed through a juvenile court, and where their criminal records cannot be erased in adulthood, thus condemning them to a life of barriers to accommodation, employment, insurance etc.

    I have made my feelings known about the system before, and it is to this theme I now return. I feel Prosecutors are part of this hypocrisy. As elected officials they have a vested interest in maintaining their reputation with voters, and so seeking the highest level of punishment in the name of “public protection” is almost a given isn’t it? The needs of the offender to be cared for and rehabilitated are always going to take second place to making sure that the elected official gets re-elected.

    Whilst it is wonderful that NYC has made the first move to address the issues surrounding youth justice, I don’t believe that much will change until either more states take up these modifications or judges react less favourably to prosecution moves to fill your correctional facilities with juveniles for their personal gain.

    • 2 BobH
      July 18, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      In the UK, juvenile incarceration now runs around 900 and has been decreasing month after month.
      The monthly report is here:
      https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/youth-custody-data

    • July 18, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      It seems that there is also a financial issue in this. In many States, juvenile detention system is locally funded, so, often, prosecutors prefer sent the youths in the adult system, which is funded by the State. They prefer save money from taxpayers (and voters), even if this ruins a kid’s life.

      • 4 Frank Manning
        July 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm

        No my friend, this is not an issue. There are lots of things bad about our juvenile justice system, but fortunately this is not one of them. You must distinguish between juvenile detention (county-run jails for kids) and juvenile rehabilitation or correctional facilties (state-run prisons for kids). Our juvenile prison populations have been steadily declining as new approaches to jucenile delinquency are being implemented, as this blog has recently pointed out. I think county detention populations have remained steady, thanks to the practice of jailing kids for “status” offenses, such as truancy and alcohol possession.

        Sending kids to the adult system is another issue, based onthe outdated “superpredator” laws that are being abandoned. In some states, prosecutors MUST refer cases involving kids to the adult system. In other states they have a lot of discretion in referral. The ethically challenged prosecutors send kids to the adult system to score points with the less educated, and frankly more racist, voters. Big on “law and order”, they claim. But we know what their real agenda is.

      • July 19, 2016 at 1:28 am

        Sorry if I am wrong on this point. What misled me into is probably the story of this young man in Oregon who killed two people in a cabin during a hunting party; almost three years ago. At the time, several articles in the media pointed out the fact that the authorities of his County expressly requested his transfer in the adult system because they had funded a long pretrial incarceration in the juvenile detention system. Fortunately for the kid, the judge has not given them satisfaction. If indeed the kid was sentenced, he was sentenced as juvenile.

      • July 19, 2016 at 1:31 am

        Rectification, I forgot to tip a word. Please, read: the authorities of his County expressly requested his transfer in the adult system because they had not funded a long pretrial incarceration in the juvenile detention system.


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