As a coalition of current and former leaders of youth justice agencies, we believe that separating youth from their families and communities, and emphasizing punishment and retribution, harms young people and their communities. We aim to facilitate community-centered justice, in which archaic, distant youth prisons are closed and communities have the resources to address the needs of youth, while helping to ensure accountability, personal responsibility, and validate victims of crime. We imagine a world where all youth have access to the support and guidance they need to become thriving, productive adults, within their own homes and communities.
The United Sates has the highest youth incarceration rate in the world, with approximately 50,000 youth in custody. The burden of this mass incarceration falls disproportionately on youth of color, who comprise the vast majority of youth in facilities. Many of these facilities are still archaic, distant prisons, where youth face trying conditions, and where punishment and control are the norm and abuse is common. Unsurprisingly, the experiences of young people in youth prisons can impede their success upon release, with many struggling in school, facing challenges in securing employment, and finding themselves in a revolving door of justice system involvement.
Meanwhile, these negative outcomes come at an extraordinarily high cost – in 2015, states spent nearly $5 billion to operate youth prisons. Continuing to pour public dollars into ineffective institutions that harm the very young people they are intended to help, just because it will be hard for adults to come up with a better way, fails the “my child” test. After all, if we wouldn’t want one of our own children to be in a youth prison, we need to question why we would want someone else’s child to.
Research shows that helping youth grow and develop within their own families and communities is vital to their long-term success, and that punitive practices only exacerbate negative outcomes for youth. Even as the number of youth incarcerated in America declines, and as trailblazing states and localities are already closing youth prisons and focusing on communities, in many places there are still enormous challenges and complicated questions that make it difficult to implement change.
We will work alongside youth, families, advocates, and leaders in other systems, to create “pipelines of possibility” for youth across the country. Working closely with allies and those closest to state and local systems, YCLJ members will help push forward current reform efforts, fight back against potentially damaging proposals, and seed new ideas about what should come next as youth justice systems move toward community-centered approaches. The work will encompass a combination of policy, advocacy, and communications.