Federal Role on Closing Youth Prisons? Schiraldi Suggests Incentives to Reverse Super-Predator Building Craze

In the first of three presidential debates, Donald Trump reminded viewers about the unfortunate comments Hillary Clinton made in 1996 about a rising tide of violent youth. Clinton’s comment, made at an event in New Hampshire:

“America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super-predators’ – radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders. They do not fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment or the pangs of conscience … At core the problem is that most inner-city children grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent and criminal.”

That sentiment helped fuel an increase in juvenile incarceration even as juvenile arrests declined. The number of incarcerated juveniles has fallen precipitously since then, and as we mused after the debate, one of the remaining legacies of the super-predator craze is the increased transfer of juveniles into the adult court system.

YSI-MB-PageBut there is another visible juvenile justice legacy from the era: the actual buildings that house juveniles, albeit fewer of them. And should Clinton prevail in this election, look for juvenile justice advocates to call for an act of contrition in the form of federal involvement in the closure of large juvenile justice facilities.

The 1994 crime bill, a deal reached between President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress, included just under $9 billion for prison construction, including building juvenile justice facilities. And as Bureau of Justice Statistics figures reflect – there was a 60 percent increase in the number of people in prison under Clinton – states and counties filled those new facilities up.

On the juvenile justice side, the facility populations are way down. Connecticut built a 250-bed, maximum-security-style facility that now regularly houses under 50 juveniles. In 2011, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) famously toured an upstate facility that was fully staffed and guarding zero juveniles.

A recent paper by Annie E. Casey Foundation CEO Patrick McCarthy and Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice makes the case that the time has come to eradicate large juvenile justice facilities across the country. “The Future of Youth Justice” argues that the low incarceration numbers make it possible, the fiscal benefits make it attractive, and that there is no evidence supporting that a big juvenile prison can be fixed.

Big juvenile prisons should be replaced, they argue, with a continuum that includes more community-based correctional programs and small, rehabilitation-oriented residential facilities.

The Obama Justice Department offered some momentum to McCarthy and Schiraldi with an official “discussion” on the paper, which ended with a  wink-and-a-nod endorsement of their thesis by Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason. But moving day cometh soon for the Obama leadership, so it will fall to a new administration, and more importantly a new Congress, to move on a youth prison closure agenda.

In an interview with Youth Services Insider after the Justice Department discussion, Schiraldi said he and other advocates would push a new administration to “start a fiscal incentive to reduce and then close youth facilities. Much in the way the ’94 crime bill gave money to build youth prisons.”

Schiraldi said there are a few challenges to closing big juvenile justice facilities that the feds really can’t do anything about. Union contracts can keep places open long past the need for them, he said, or sometimes the juvenile justice department head is “unimaginative or lacks courage or vision.”

But in other cases, Schiraldi said, a small capital injection can be the difference between change and status quo. “A lot of states have taken a big budget hit,” he said. “They have to start up community programs first, but they can’t do that and run the old facilities.”

For systems in that scenario, Schiraldi said, “a small federal investment might do it.”

If Clinton prevails in this election, such a plan offers a chance to put money where her mouth has already been. She has publicly expressed regret over her “super-predator” characterization.

Would she have support for such a plan in Congress? Hard to say, with so much in flux right now. But the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention always has a few million to play with in discretionary funds, so she might not need help for a small program.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.