Liz Ryan is on a Mission to Close Youth Prisons

Posted October 20, 2016, By Lisa Hamilton

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Interviewee:

Liz Ryan directs Youth First, a national campaign to end the incarceration of young people by closing youth prisons and investing instead in community-based alternatives. She also is the founder and former CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which works to end the practice of handling youth in the adult criminal justice system.

Youth prisons are spending an enormous amount of our resources, roughly $5 billion a year, that could be freed up for other, more effective, community-based alternatives.

–Liz Ryan

Show Notes

Every day in America, youth are unfairly funneled into detention facilities that pull them deeper into the criminal justice system. It’s a broken and costly approach that’s in desperate need of reform. And we know there’s a better way.

Liz Ryan directs Youth First, a national advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of young people by closing youth prisons and investing instead in community-based alternatives.

Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to Ryan about what’s wrong with America’s prevailing juvenile justice system, what a better system looks like, and how we can help states end their reliance on youth prisons and incarcerating kids.

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View Transcripts

Lisa Hamilton: Each morning, nearly 55,000 young people wake up in a youth prison, experiencing a disconnection from their families, their communities, and the threat of violence. The Casey Foundation President and CEO, Patrick McCarthy, has joined others in calling for the end of youth prisons. Today's guest is here to talk about these issues and more effective alternatives for young people. Liz Ryan is the President and CEO of Youth First, a national advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of youth by closing youth prisons and investing in community-based alternatives.

Youth First is a Casey grantee. Liz is the founder and the former CEO of the nationally recognized Campaign for Youth Justice, which leads the national effort to end the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth in the adult justice system. Since the Campaign for Youth Justice was launched in 2004, nearly half the states have reduced the prosecution of youth in adult court.

Liz has worked on many campaigns, including efforts to overhaul the mail federal law on youth justice, and the close the Oak Hill Youth Detention Center in Washington, D.C. She's an author of numerous opinion editorials, articles and reports and she serves as an expert resource to reporters and national media outlets. We're delighted to have Liz Ryan with us today. Hello, Liz. Welcome to our podcast.

Liz Ryan: Thank you so much, Lisa.

Lisa Hamilton: Let's start by talking about the experience of young people who are incarcerated. Could you tell us how many young people is this affecting, what's their experience, and what kind of offenses have they committed?

Liz Ryan: Thank you, Lisa, for the opportunity to talk about this issue today. It's really close to my heart. Every day in the U.S., roughly 54,000 young people are incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. This includes incarceration in youth prisons, it includes juvenile detention facilities where young people are awaiting court hearings, and it includes a number of other out-of-home placements. These young people in youth prisons are in situations that are unsafe, unfair, and don't work. Youth prisons are spending an enormous amount of our resources, roughly 5 billion dollars a year, that could be freed up for other, more effective, community-based alternatives.

The vast majority of young people who are incarcerated in the United States in the juvenile justice system are there for not serious offenses. A very, very small number of youth are confined for very, very serious offenses, but most youth, the vast majority, are there for property crimes, things like misdemeanors and status offenses, running away, truancy, things like that, and also for violations of probation, which is of concern to me and to many others. We're overusing incarceration when we don't really need to be.

Lisa Hamilton: Could you talk a bit about the issues of racial equity in the juvenile justice system? They are similar to those in the adult system, but talk about impact on young people of color, given the way we use incarceration to address youth offenders.

Liz Ryan: That's a key point, Lisa, because our juvenile justice system incarcerates young people of color at much higher rates than white youth, and this is profoundly unfair. We know from the data that 68% of youth who are incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are young people of color. For example, when you look at, let's just say, African-American youth, African-American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. In some states, a state like Wisconsin, or Connecticut, African-American boys, for example, are incarcerated at rates 20, 24 times higher than white youth. We know that youth of color and white youth commit roughly the same levels of offenses, so this is a system that profoundly and unjustly impacts young people of color.

Lisa Hamilton: For all these reasons, the Casey Foundation and your organization are working to help this country abandon the youth prison model. Could you say more about why we need to use other alternatives, than youth prisons?

Liz Ryan: First of all, we are placing young people in youth prisons that are profoundly unsafe. We know from the research that the Annie E. Casey Foundation has done, and others, that when young people are placed in youth prisons, they are exposed to very high rates of violence, sexual assault, physical assault. In fact, the report that was released last year by the foundation, it showed that the number of states where abuse has been documented has increased. It's roughly 29 states since 2000 have documented reports of abuse. That's one reason, is that we're putting young people in harm's way by placing them in these facilities.

Second is the point that I previously mentioned about the unfairness of this, that this is being reserved almost exclusively for young people of color. That is profoundly unjust. Third is, youth prisons don't work. We know when we place a young person in one of these facilities, that it substantially increases the likelihood that they will re-offend, and it dramatically increases the likelihood that they'll end up in the adult criminal justice system. Even if you disagreed on other points, looking at the fact that this doesn't work should also be a key factor in trying to replace this.

The good news is; we know a lot more about what works with young people in the community than we did a decade or so ago. What we need to be doing is closing these facilities, taking the resources from those facilities, because we're talking billions of dollars here, and re-investing those dollars in more effective programs that work.

Lisa Hamilton: I understand youth prisons look different in different states. Could you describe what a youth prison looks like in a variety of different models?

Liz Ryan: That's a great question, Lisa. We have been thinking about this a lot, because, as you stated, that youth prisons look differently in different states. We came up with a mnemonic, the word locked up, as a way to remember, what are some of the key characteristics. Not all of these characteristics describe every one of these places, but it's a way of picking up some criteria that gives you a sense of what they look like.

The first is large, so L stands for large. Here, we're talking about facilities that are 25, 30 beds or more. O for old, or outdated. Here, it's an old approach. We know youth prisons were started in the 1820s, and in some instances, those facilities are actually still in place. In a lot of place, they replaced that with a newer facility, but the model itself is old and outdated.

C stands for correctional approach. We know that in these kinds of institutions, that they take an adult corrections approach. They put kids in solitary confinement, they place kids in restraints. There are correctional officers, so a lot of the kinds of correctional approaches you'd see in the adult system, you're seeing in these youth facilities.

K stands for kids, remembering that kids are in these places. E stands for excludes families. Families are often not at the center of what's happening inside these institutions. The families have limited access to their children, and they're not necessarily involved in the treatment and care of the kids, or in the design of the treatment services for young people. We know from the research that kids thrive best in families, and that family solutions are often the ones that are the most effective programs. Youth prisons exclude families.

D stands for disparities, and we know that there are profound racial and ethic disparities in the incarceration of children, and that's what's happening in youth prisons. That's LOCKED, and then UP, u stands for under investigation, and as I mentioned, many of these institutions have been under some type of investigation, either state litigation, or federal litigation, or a combination, or there have been allegations of abuse from a variety of sources, including a federal report on the prevalence of sexual abuse under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. We know that 10% of the youth in these kinds of facilities are subjected to sexual violence, and as I mentioned before, 29 states since 2000 have documented cases of abuse in these facilities.

The last is P, prison-like. When you look at these facilities, one of the features you often see is it looks like an adult prison. On our Youth Prison Inventory, which you'll see on our website, you can actually see what these facilities look like. We have an aerial view of the 80 largest and oldest youth prisons, and you'll see perimeter fence, razor-wire fence. You'll see isolation. You'll see large facilities themselves, and then inside, there are isolation cells. There are other types of correctional type features inside the institutions that make you think; this looks like an adult prison. Things like doors themselves that lock, and then there's small slats where they place the tray of food for kids, and things like that. We know that they have adult prison-like features, so the "LOCKED UP" is our way of starting to talk about what some of the features are, and we know there's other features of these kinds of facilities, and that this is just the beginning, but this gives you a sense of what we're talking about here.

Lisa Hamilton: Thank you. I appreciate that. As you know, we supported the photography of Richard Ross to document what some of these places look like, and it's shocking for any of us to think that our child, who hadn't committed a non-violent offense, could be subjected to facilities like that. Thank you for helping us understand some of the characteristics of them. Then, Youth First is focused on trying to get states to abandon this model. How are you going about pursing your work?

Liz Ryan: We're pursuing our work through a lot of collaboration with national, state, and local organizations and individuals. At the most fundamental level, we're working with groups on the ground, in a handful of states. We're helping the organizations to set a large leadership table that includes directly affected youth and their families. It also includes a variety of organizations and individuals who want to work on these issues, and it's a multi-strategy approach. They're doing organizing work, they're doing direct action, they're increasing the attention by the media on this issue, they're doing policy advocacy and budget advocacy type work. Oftentimes, this effort is dealt with through the budget process, and so it's really a multi-strategy approach a collective effort by many organizations on the ground.

Then we are working with a number of key national organizations, many of whom you would know already, that have expertise in juvenile justice, but we're also engaging others in the effort, who have lots of constituencies or affiliates that are on the ground, in the states. What's exciting about this is that many, many stakeholders are coming to the table, wanting to be part of these efforts. It's really about fierce advocacy, and this advocacy combined with system leadership, is what's going to get us to reach our goals, because we know that in a lot of places, there is no interest in closing youth prisons, and investing in alternatives. The strategy's really focused on trying to see the ground, trying to make the case, trying to build up constituency for change, and to show policymakers in that state that we're not going to stop until the changes are made, and we're going to ensure that even after the changes are made, there's follow through.

My experience in this, just speaking in the D.C. arena, we actually created a coalition of people called Justice for D.C. Youth, and we worked for almost 5 years to get the city to change its policy on this, and after almost 5 years of concerted advocacy, the city council passed comprehensive reform legislation to close Oak Hill and replace it with an array of community-based options, and a smaller facility which is now New Beginnings. That took a lot of effort. Then, it also laid the ground work for strong leadership to be appointed to oversee the implementation of that.

That's the kind of thing that we think we're going to see in the states, and that we're already starting to see a little bit of. We know we're going to learn a lot along the way. We don't have all the answers. That's the beauty of doing this work and really engaging a lot of stakeholders, is that you get lots of solutions proposed from people on strategy, and also on the kinds of community based options we want to see.

Lisa Hamilton: Even building on your experience in D.C., it sounds like there are steps that need to be taken in order to help a state close its facilities.

Liz Ryan: The steps are really important, Lisa. That's a great question. The first step is about putting the issue on the map, galvanizing a constituency for each issue front and center, in front of policymakers, showing the profound unfairness, the fact that this doesn't work and it's not safe, and that we can do something better. That's really, really important, because policymakers, in a lot of places, this is not front and center, and this issue hasn't been put in front of them in the way that it needs to be. That's the first issue.

The second step, really, is taking a set of solutions. What are the alternatives to doing this? Oftentimes, once you get this on the radar of policy makers it's hard to refute. It's hard to look at what we're doing inside these institutions and say very much that's positive about that. Oftentimes, policymakers will ask, "What do we need to be doing that's different?" Putting out a different vision of what the youth justice system should look like is really important.

I think third, we have to think about, what are the economic concerns in the areas that are going to be affected by this? By that, I'm talking about two kinds of areas. One is where the kids are coming from, right? The constituencies that are most affected need to see the results and the impact of this in terms of re-investment, but you also have constituencies where the facilities are actually located that are going to be concerned about the economic impact on their community, and they're going to be concerned about the job losses. We have to think about how that's going to be addressed there.

I've seen examples in some states, where they've said, "Well, we're going to treat this like a plant closing. We're going to make sure that the workers get job training and job placement support through the state's Department of Labor. We're going to make sure that there's an economic development plan for that community, so it can create jobs and thrive on a different kind of economy that doesn't rely on putting kids in cages. That's really, really important to the change, because we are going after a change that's been in place for a really long time.

The next step that's really going to be important is collaboration, and that is collaboration with the system leadership. Hopefully, the system leadership, the Juvenile Justice Correctional Agency head and the governor, and other lawmakers are going to be responsive to this. Sometimes they're not, and sometimes they have to be pushed. In one of the states, recently, there was a big push to try to close the state's juvenile correctional facility. There was abuse that was shown, that was inside the institution. There were reports, and there were videotapes. Ultimately, the state decided, and the governor said, "I'm going to close this institution," but it took a lot of effort to get on the map, and so the leadership in that state is now taking the bull by the horns and running with it.

That's what's going to be really important in this effort, and that's, I think, a lot of ... Those are the major steps there, but then it doesn't stop there. The system change takes a lot of different steps now. You're looking at trying to create an array of community-based options in that area. You're looking at trying to re-allocate the resources to fund those community-based options. Then you're also thinking about, how can we ensure that this happens? We need some type of oversight and accountability body that's going to ensure, from the community standpoint, that this happens effectively?

We know that that's a lot of steps, and that that process can take a number of years, but moving on that trajectory, in some instances, if you already have leadership at the state level, you can get it moving a lot faster. In other instances, if you already have fierce advocacy, and people that have been raising this issue, then it can happen a lot faster. Sometimes these things happen in different orders, so it's not necessarily sequential steps, but these are all key ingredients to getting the outcome that we're seeking.

Lisa Hamilton: You've talked a lot about re-investing savings from youth prison closings into community-based solutions. Describe what some of these solutions look like, compared to the description we talked about, of prison-like settings.

Liz Ryan: These solutions, we're really talking about a continuum of care, and a continuum of care, it's a continuum is sort of like, you look at like a line and maybe on the deepest end of the line, you have the highest, most intensive, wrap-around type programs, like youth advocate programs. Something that works with kids who pose the most risk to public safety, who need much more intensive services, so they have an individualized plan, they have a mentor advocate that's paid, and is full-time, and works with that young person to craft solutions that support that young person. They're working with them at night, on the weekend. It's a very intensive programming. It also draws on the strengths of the family and really tries to ensure that that young person gets back on track.

You might have other programs along the continuum that are less intensive, things like restorative justice programs that offer youth a chance to restore and heal the community. You might have counseling. Some kids need counseling for different types of things. Then, there might be other programs that are going to focus more on workforce, job training, and apprenticeships, work supports or supported work, I guess. Thinks like paid internships and things like that that help a young person to gain the kinds of skills that they need to become successful adults.

Then, on other instances, you might have something that's a lot less intensive. The point along the continuum is you want to make sure that you don't over-program kids, or you don't under-program kids, because you want to make sure that they're getting the right dosage of support at the time that it's needed and that you're supporting them with the individualized kinds of programs and services that are tailored to meet their needs. That's really, really important.

Along the continuum, we know that there are effective programs that work, and that there are places where they're modeling this. For example, in one of the JDAI sites in Ohio, in Lucas County where Toledo is, you see a very robust continuum of care. It looks kind of like a staircase, and you sort of have different programs at different points along the staircase, leading up to the most highest intensity programs and starting with much lower intensity programs for kids. It's working really well. Their recidivism rates have come down. They're also looking at how are young people growing and thriving, and that's the kind of continuum that we think is important to have, and that each community should decide for itself what it looks like, but what's nice is that we have some effective models out there to look at.

Lisa Hamilton: Thank you, Liz. As you were talking about the role that advocacy plays in helping states take up this issue, you spoke about having young people themselves and their families engaged. Could you describe the ways that they get involved? What are the stories they tell about the impact of these systems on their lives, their children's lives, their family's lives?

Liz Ryan: That's such a key point, Lisa. One of the core values that we have as part of Youth First, which is really a strategy among multiple organizations across the country and in the states is that young people who have been most affected by this issue really are the ones who have the solutions, and have the expertise on what needs to be different about the youth justice system. We are supporting young people in their ability to participate in and to lead in these advocacy efforts, and also to bring their families and communities to the table. Part of our initiative is to broaden the leadership table in the states, on these campaigns, so that young people who are directly affected are part of the core of this effort.

We're also ensuring that these young people cannot only talk about their experience in the system, which is often what they're asked to do, but that they have the capacity and are given the tools to propose solutions, that they can put forward policy recommendations, that they can be spokespersons in the media, and that they can be the voice and the face of these kinds of campaigns. It's really exciting to see that starting to happen in the states. We know that this doesn't often happen, but we want to do everything we can to ensure that their leadership is supported. That's a core value of what we're trying to accomplish with this work, so it’s capacity building as well as trying to accomplish these policy reforms that we're talking about.

Lisa Hamilton: Liz, we've heard that there's a growing interest in addressing the issues of mass incarceration on the adult level. Do you sense a similar momentum at the juvenile justice level for significant reform? What gives you hope about the future for this work?

Liz Ryan: What gives me hope is that we've seen some reform in juvenile justice that's been very exciting. For example, we are, in terms of youth incarceration, it's dropped 50% in the last decade. There's a greater reliance on community-based solutions than on incarceration. We think we can go further and continue to push this. We've also seen fierce advocacy in a number of states, states like Texas, California, New York, D.C., Mississippi, Ohio, where youth, families, advocates, and communities have come together to push for more community-based solutions over incarceration.

We've learned a lot hearing from these efforts, and we want to build on them and continue to expand the effort across the country and in many states. It's a very exciting time in youth justice. There's a lot that we can leverage, and a lot we can learn, and a lot more that we're going to learn from this, but I'm very hopeful because I am working with young people who are directly affected by this, and they have so much hope for the future, and can see the impact of what they've been doing already, that it gives me a lot of hope that we're going to get these changes that we're pushing for.

Lisa Hamilton: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Liz, for your perspective, for the work that you lead at Youth First, and certainly for joining us today.

Liz Ryan: Thank you.

Lisa Hamilton: I want to thank our listeners for joining as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, rate our podcast on iTunes to help others find us. To learn more about our podcast and for show notes, visit our website: AECF.org, and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter at AECFNews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you, a bright future.