Reading Between the Lines, Justice Dept. Supports Closing Juvenile Prisons

She didn’t provide the kind of neatly-wrapped, unequivocal stuff of memes. But Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, facing unemployment in a few months, essentially threw Justice Department support behind the movement to eliminate large juvenile justice facilities in the United States.

Her comments wrapped up a morning discussion, hosted by the Justice Department, about a paper advocating for the closure of all large juvenile justice facilities in the United States.

Mason, who heads the Office of Justice Programs, began the sort of standard monologue that closes out most Beltway sessions, thanking study authors and other advocates for their “relentless passion” on the subject. She soon found herself almost musing aloud that her time at the Justice Department was almost up, before making a more clear statement in support of the paper.

“We know what to do, the question is do we have the will to do it,” Mason said. “We know that our current juvenile justice system does not work, it does not work. So let’s go create something that does work.”

Given the context of the session, it would be hard to construe that as anything other than support for closing youth prisons from a United States assistant attorney general.

The event was carefully crafted to lend additional authenticity and credibility to the paper, to elevate the discussion beyond the circles of advocates and philanthropists who already agree with the sentiment. It was billed as a “meaningful and engaging discussion about a community-based approach to juvenile justice.”

The day featured comments from Annie E. Casey Foundation CEO Patrick McCarthy and Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice, co-authors of “The Future of Youth Justice.” The paper does not introduce new evidence; rather, it lays out a linear argument for why the way forward is to replace youth prisons and reinvest the savings from their closure in a continuum of community-based programs and small, rehabilitation-oriented facilities.

The key point argued in the paper is that history has proved impossible the repair and reform of large juvenile facilities:

Large, institutional-style prisons cannot be retrofitted to provide such an environment. Moreover, most youth prisons are located far from home, making it much more difficult to maintain family ties or facilitate gradual transitions into community-based programming, both of which are critical to long-term success. The only viable option is to replace large youth prisons with smaller, more home-like facilities, close to youth’s communities.

The paper is an “air-tight case against youth prisons,” said Youth First CEO Liz Ryan. “They aren’t safe, aren’t fair, don’t work and can’t be fixed.”

Ryan spoke as part of a panel discussion that included leaders in the D.C. legal community, research, and family and youth advocacy.

“I support everything you all are standing for,” said panelist Karl Racine, attorney general for Washington, D.C. “As an elected official that could come back to bite me but that’s okay. I don’t need the job that much.”

Mason needs her job even less, as it will likely disappear shortly after inauguration.

“No matter who has my seat, you need to be demanding things from him or her,” Mason said.

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 107 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.