The Miami Herald’s investigative series “Fight Club” describes a pattern of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of Florida’s children in juvenile detention. As former youth corrections directors, we read these accounts with disgust and anger — but, sadly, not with shock. Too often, youth committed to the care of juvenile correctional facilities are violated by those being paid with tax dollars.
With the litany of horrors uncovered by the Herald, Florida joins a long list of states where abuses have been documented in youth prisons. The traditional model of locking young people up in youth prisons is fatally flawed, and falls short of preserving public safety or rehabilitating youth.
From 1970 to 2015, systemic abuse of children in youth prisons has been uncovered in all but five states. In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a comprehensive survey of youth in America’s youth prisons and found that one in eight reported being sexually assaulted by staff or other youth in the facility in the year preceding the survey. Far from being an anomaly, abusive conditions in youth prisons are the norm.
This exacts a toll not only on youth and staff, but on public safety. National research shows that compared to similarly situated youth, young people in America’s youth prisons are more likely to be rearrested, have worse employment and educational outcomes and are more prone to mental illness. In Florida, Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) analyses confirm this research. Simply put, regardless of their assessed risk of reoffending, Florida youth supervised and receiving services through probation are less likely to return to court than those sent to its prisons. Despite this, a state evaluation and recent DJJ data suggest judges routinely order youth to secure placements even when state guidelines suggest the use of less restrictive alternatives.
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Florida has taken some steps toward improving its system over the past six years, with a 60 percent reduction in the number of young people of low-to-moderate risk in state custody accompanied by its lowest youth arrest rate in more than 40 years. DJJ also has expanded the use of evidence-based programs.
Florida can build on these significant assets to safely shutter its youth prisons and, instead, develop a comprehensive approach to provide effective interventions for youth based on their individual needs.
That is why we recommend that the state replace these factories of failure with community programs and small, rehabilitative facilities close to youth’s homes. Florida policymakers must resist the temptation to invest more in the institution-based model consistently shown to produce abuse and increase recidivism.
Research confirms young people are capable of change and need guidance, education, and a network of support to get — and stay — on the right path. For the few youth who need them, the state can provide effective community-based residential treatment.
We know — from research and example — what works, and, increasingly, practitioners and policymakers are rethinking their reliance on incarceration. In recent years, several jurisdictions have made significant investments in alternatives to youth incarceration with promising results. From Tacoma, Washington to New York City, community-based programs are helping youth turn their lives around.
Youth incarceration dropped by 55 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the most recent federal data. At the same time, juvenile arrests have plunged nationally by 63 percent. Judges are getting better options for matching youth with the appropriate degree of guidance and supervision, offering youth a second chance.
Florida has an opportunity to take a fresh look at how it responds to youth in contact with the law. Overreliance on state systems can yield disastrous results at great costs to youth and other citizens. Policymakers, in partnership with communities, should make the courageous choice to demand better outcomes for the state’s children.
Candice Jones is president and CEO of the Public Welfare Foundation and former director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former division director at the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. Vincent Schiraldi is a senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab, and formerly led the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.