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In New York state, the number of youth confined in public facilities decreased from 2,517 in 2001 to 1,005 in 2010, a 60 percent decline. Photo: Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justice Project
In New York state, the number of youth confined in public facilities decreased from 2,517 in 2001 to 1,005 in 2010, a 60 percent decline. Photo: Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justice Project

Study finds fewer NY, US children behind bars

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A new study released this week finds that the US is putting fewer children behind bars. New York state has seen one of the sharpest drops.

In 2000 there were more than 2,800 kids being held in detention centers across New York. That number has dropped by nearly two-thirds -- and 13 youth detention centers have closed statewide.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made closing those facilities one of his priorities: "You have juvenile justice facilities today where we have young people who are receiving help, assistance, program treatment that has already been proven to be ineffective."

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Unfortunately, many kids are locked up for a wide range of social-service needs.
This latest study, conducted by the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, found that the number of kids held in state and county facilities nationwide spiked in the eighties and nineties.

As part of our Prison Time Media Project, Natasha Haverty spoke with Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, who heads the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association in New York City.

Natasha Haverty: The first thing I want to ask you is what led us there? What triggered this huge increase by 2000?

Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco: I think that criminal justice policy, like all social policies have a number of factors, right? There’s not one easy answer. But there was this cultural norm that got a lot of traction. This idea of "super-predators"—there was this idea that there were these young people who were acting in terrible ways. And the term "wilding" was invented, which is actually a very racially-loaded term, that had young people sort of socially represented as these young people who were wild and going about the country wreaking havoc and causing violence. So this started taking real hold in the minds of the public. But it actually turned into legislation and into policies.

NH: Can you then talk about what’s changed? What’s happening right now?

GHP: A number of things have happened. One is that there is this growing recognition that incarceration is not good public policy—that the idea that incarcerating children is tough on crime is a myth. It generally leads to increasing recidivism and violence, and it’s also not good for kids. And that is also no longer seen as some sort of radical, out-there idea.

A second factor is that there has been a real increase in the availability of alternative programming. So maybe sometimes people will say, “Okay, well maybe jail or prison is a bad idea. But what do we do instead?” Right? We can’t just let kids run free. That might be a response even a listener might have.

There’s real recognition that there are evidenced-based, research-driven alternatives to detention and incarceration. So community-based programs, for example, where kids live at home and a social worker works with them and their family on whatever the underlying issues are that might bring a youth into contact with the law in the first place.

NH: What are some of the most common reasons that kids do get put behind bars? Because I think a lot of people don’t know, or they don’t know if it mirrors the adult population, or how it is distinct from the adult population.

GHP: That’s a great question. One thing that is important to know is that the majority of kids that are locked up aren't there because they’ve committed serious violent crimes. For example, in New York State about half of the kids who are in state placements are there for misdemeanors, which are by definition non-violent.

In the family court, judges look at a wide range of factors, including if a child’s family is perceived as being able to help that child, whether that child is going to school, at whether they have other needs. Ideally, the system tries to not use those things as a proxy for incarceration. But unfortunately, many, many kids are locked up for a wide range of social service needs.

NH: We can see in this story that the data tells us that a lot can change in one decade. In the work that you do and in the work that you see from this study, what do you see in the coming decade?

GHP: I very much hope that what we see is New York State and other jurisdictions around the country continuing the trend, and continuing to be mindful and not hide from the reality that it is a myth, this idea that locking kids up reducing crime. And it’s a myth that might comfort some people, and it’s a myth that on some level might make people feel safe. But the reality is that the real way to help public safety is also the right way to help children.

What that is, in its essence, is about recognizing children as children, it’s about honoring the humanity of children, and it’s about making sure children have what they need in order to grow and develop into adults.

I don’t think that is at all at odds with holding children accountable for their behavior, but it requires more of us. It’s a deeper solution. It’s a more nuanced solution.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by ACT, the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

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