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Youth Prison Report: Shut Every One Down

Wisconsin News Connection

A new report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation pulls together evidence of the ineffectiveness of youth correctional facilities, showing they are expensive and prone to abuse, and concluding they fail at reform.

The report recommends closing all youth prisons and reinvesting in other types of programs. In some states, the report contends there is a racial component. Wisconsin incarcerates black youth at a rate of more than 16 times the national average. Casey Foundation president and CEO Patrick McCarthy says the basic function of any juvenile intervention program should be to reduce the odds a young person will follow a life of crime, and put him or her on a path toward success...

"And in that basic measure, these institutions fail miserably," he maintains. "The recidivism rates for these institutions range from 70 to 80 percent, so they're not performing their basic community safety function in any way, shape or form."

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections operates three juvenile facilities - Lincoln Hills and the Copper Lake School for Girls, both located in Irma,  and The Grow Academy just south of Madison, which the department calls an alternative to juvenile incarceration.

According to the report, systemic maltreatment has been documented in youth prison facilities in nearly half the states since 2000. McCarthy says it's the result of a model focused on security and control rather than providing appropriate developmental needs of young people.

"They are staffed by corrections officers and in some facilities, things like Mace have been used, long extended isolation, shackles, handcuffs - very brutal methods of controlling a young population," he explains.

Instead of the outmoded assumption that locking up young people improves safety, McCarthy says the corrections culture should focus on rehabilitating them.

"We've got to build a juvenile justice system that's based on the very simple principle of developing young people's capacity, giving them opportunity," he stresses. "Holding them accountable, of course, is also very important, but doing it in a way that provides them a path to get back on track."

The Wisconsin News Connection is here.