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Right on Crime | September 1, 2011
The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) brings us news that sixteen states have recently shut down traditional juvenile detention centers, or drastically reduced the number of youths being incarcerated in those facilities. All the way from New Mexico to Rhode Island, there appears to be a trend away from juvenile lock-up facilities. But what is replacing these facilities? And are these closures being made for the right reasons?
Some states are choosing community-based treatment options for juveniles in lieu of traditional detention facilities. The success of this model, demonstrated by the first states to adopt it, has encouraged others to follow suit. One such state, Alabama, diverted some of the savings from reduced juvenile detention costs to community-based programs, while simultaneously creating a grant system to supplement that funding.
Quite a few states, however, have decreasing numbers of juveniles in their detention facilities merely because fewer juveniles are ever in jeopardy of commitment to the juvenile system. California, for example, is arresting fewer people—and thus incarcerating fewer people—but that trend is not a recognition of the ineffectiveness of traditional juvenile detention facilities for some offenders. It does not suggest what the number of juveniles in lock-ups would be if the state’s arrest rate were to resurge.
Finally, still other juvenile justice systems are closing prison doors—not because there aren’t any juveniles to put in the cells—but rather because prison conditions brought about lawsuits, which required the closure of the facilities. New York was hit with Department of Justice investigations and a class action lawsuit, and responded by closing juvenile facilities. Unfortunately, funding for alternatives to incarceration has not yet gone into effect—which means juveniles in New York are stuck in between shuttered doors and postdated checks.
The NJJN has its priorities in the right place: it is focused on prioritizing incarceration for those juveniles for whom it will be most effective, and considering community based alternatives for others. A juvenile detention facility closure, however, should not be celebrated if these factors were not a contributing cause. If juvenile prisons are being closed because of lawsuits or lower arrest rates, continued positive change in the juvenile justice system is by no means certain—and perhaps not even likely.