We stopped the joint correctional facility for youths. Now, let’s create the community supports we need to keep them home.
Twin Cities youths and families got an unexpected gift this holiday season: After a contentious planning effort, Hennepin and Ramsey counties have decided to walk away from a plan to build a joint juvenile correctional facility.
We are among the many, including youths, who worked to stop the construction of a joint correctional facility. We have deep experience with youths and juvenile justice, and know that intensive community-based alternatives can safely manage the vast majority of our children.
We celebrate today; tomorrow we’ll get back to work. We know it is not enough to close youth prisons. We must work to create a system that draws on the strengths of youths, families and communities, and whose default is to keep youths in their homes and neighborhoods.
Policymakers are quick to dismiss opposition to youth prisons as impractical or naïve. But a justice system built on community interventions and supports rather than correctional institutions is realistic and attainable if we make the right investments.
A report released this month, “Beyond Bars: Keeping Young People Safe at Home and Out of Youth Prisons” — and one released in October through the Harvard Kennedy School of Justice and the National Institute of Justice — both offer concrete policy steps to replace youth confinement and congregate care with intensive community-based programming. The correctional facility model is the most expensive and least effective response to youth delinquency, emphasizes control rather than relationships, exacerbates trauma, and fails to address public safety.
According to Ramsey and Hennepin counties, 45 percent of youths who leave Hennepin County Homeschool and Boys Totem Town are reoffending within a year.
Minnesota is among the five states with the highest rates of commitments for American-Indian youths, and is among the 10 states with the highest commitment rates for black youths. These are children who have to reconcile our nation’s painful history, and lack faith in our belief in them. We consistently give them our strongest arm and weakest support. Families too often see young people in crisis get trapped in a justice system, and return to them worse off.
Many youths end up in confinement because of a lack of alternatives. Facility staff have shared recent stories of youths who spend months in detention for truancy. Judges have told us they feel like they don’t have other options. Youths end up in the system because families and communities are judged to be “bad.” Many justice-involved youths are themselves victims, re-traumatized in institutions. And we know that many youths reenter the systems because they don’t succeed in our programs. Rather than responding with increasing sanctions, we need to assume that some programs will “fail” certain youths, and that incarceration is not the correct response.
We currently incarcerate youths whose imprisonment does not advance safety. According to national data, more than half of Minnesota’s 674 committed youths were incarcerated for non-person offenses like property, drugs, public order and technical violations. Less than a third are committed for the most serious violent person offenses.
We can decarcerate facilities by investing in a robust continuum of care that can hold youths accountable and help them grow in communities. After all, anything that is done in an institution can be done better in a different setting, if it is properly resourced. Rather than seeking and perpetuating “risk” and deficits, a strong continuum identifies and builds up assets and strengths. Youths, particularly those who have made mistakes, need opportunities to better exercise independence and decisionmaking. But institutions and surveillance-based models like probation tend to focus on control and obedience.
While there are no perfect systems, there are bright spots. Lucas County, Ohio, has emerged as a national model for a continuum of care by hiring staff with rehabilitative mind-sets, keeping misdemeanants off probation, and creating services in the community. As a result, the county saved money and improved outcomes for youths.
We’ll celebrate the end of the year knowing that community and youth input changed the trajectory of a joint correctional facility, which many said was a done deal. And we’ll start the New Year ready to work for the kinds of investments and community partnerships that will benefit our children, and us all.
Damon Drake and Laura LaBlanc are community leaders with InEquality in Ramsey County. Jason Sole is president of NAACP Minneapolis. Tonja Honsey is an advocate for youth justice and was incarcerated for much of her adolescence. Laura Jones, of St. Paul, writes on criminal and juvenile justice policy.