May 18 2017

Imagine a California without youth prisons because we don’t need them anymore.

Young people would still make mistakes, some of them tragic. But instead of being taken from their families and schools, they would receive community-based counseling, mentoring, job training and opportunities that build on their strengths, enabling them to become productive adults. The limited number of youth at risk of harming others would go to small, secure therapeutic residential treatment centers near their communities.

This vision is within reach in California and other states. Indeed, California has made significant progress since the “lock ’em up” days of the 1990s. Arrest rates are at a 35-year low, and 50 percent fewer youth are behind bars now than in 1996, as more people understand incarceration does more harm than good. This has led California to a remarkable point: Two-thirds of counties operate half-empty youth lockups.

It’s time to finish the job and replace this ineffective, expensive system with approaches that work. Places such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco are showing the way with programs that successfully support young people in community settings. In Los Angeles County, which holds 25 percent of the state’s incarcerated youth, supervisors have requested a comprehensive plan for community-based alternatives to arrest and incarceration.

These moves mirror a national trend. Youth incarceration dropped 50 percent from 1999 to 2013, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. At the same time, public safety hasn’t been compromised, as evidenced by a drop in felony charges against young people. Instead, places from Portland, Ore., to New York City have created a strong continuum of community-based programs and services for young people who get in trouble with the law.

Solutions include diversion options, such as assessment centers in Toledo, Ohio, which connect youth charged with misdemeanors with community programs rather than processing them through courts. Restorative justice programs – used in several California counties – successfully hold youth accountable for their actions and address victims’ needs. A mentoring model in New York involves individuals who were in the system in helping neighborhood youth turn their lives around.

The reality is that incarcerating youth yields poor results. It increases their chances of being in prison as adults, reduces their likelihood of graduating from high school and worsens their health long term. Click here to read piece in its entirety at

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