Is the joint Ramsey and Hennepin County plan to build a new super juvenile prison our best vision for 21st-century community investment (“Counties uniting to treat juveniles,” Jan. 19)? When officials talk only to each other, these are the kinds of decisions they make. This is clearly a conversation where community input is needed. In this case, the decision is wrong and the cost is high — to children, to our goal of racial equity, to our goal of public safety and to taxpayers.
Five reasons this plan should be stopped:
1. Locking up children doesn’t work. It doesn’t help them, and it doesn’t help their families and communities. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), a national leader in this conversation, our reliance on youth prisons has not worked and is often abusive.
In a 2010 AECF report, Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO, makes the point: “Even where conditions in training schools meet basic standards of decent care, the outcomes of incarceration have been disappointing, if not dismal, both in terms of recidivism and youths’ future success. In state after state, 70 to 80 percent of juveniles released from youth corrections facilities are rearrested within two or three years for a new offense. Pitifully few of these youth return to complete high school, and their long-term success in the labor market is severely jeopardized.”
2. There is a myth that punishment rehabilitates people. Therefore, when we lock people up, we believe it is good public policy. If these practices don’t deliver good outcomes, how can this be money well-spent?
3. The field of corrections reform is growing. We know we get better outcomes from smaller, safer, innovative settings. Let’s benefit from new thinking at this critical moment.
4. Juvenile crime is down, and local investment in alternatives to locking up children has decreased our current demand for these institutions.
Both Ramsey County and Hennepin County have been engaged in good-faith efforts for 10 years to reduce the number of young people heading into the system and channeled into deep-end, institutional placement. These efforts, and other forces, are part of a long-term decline in juvenile crime. Why build a new superfacility now? Ramsey County has 30 young people in its deep-end facility and Hennepin County has 40. Isn’t building a 163-bed facility incentivizing the prison-industrial complex we are committed to deconstruct?
5. Are we learning anything from Native Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter? These groups are making public statements that all marginalized communities share. We have received the shortest end of the stick in terms of safety and opportunity in America, and we are demanding that we, as a nation, think differently about policing and incarceration. We are demanding investment in our health and well-being, not more prisons.
In Seattle, a three-year battle over a similar decision to build a large, state-of-the-art facility ended in a community victory to block the plan. Let’s use our community will and Seattle’s example at this critical juncture. According to Marcus Harrison Green, a reporter for YES! Magazine, after extensive community organizing and input, “in a 9-0 unanimous decision, Seattle’s City Council passed a resolution that fully endorses the goal of zero-percent detention of youth, and called for the city to develop policies eliminating the necessity of their imprisonment.”
Do we want a protracted battle or a good conversation? Let’s talk before we build anything new.
Zero-percent detention of youth wouldn’t require a new building — it wouldn’t require any buildings at all.
Laura LaBlanc and Jenna Klein-Brown are organizers of IN Equality, a coalition advocating police and court reform.