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Liz Ryan, President of Youth First Initiative, Discusses the Painful Reality of Youth Incarceration

This piece originally appeared in Teen Vogue.


What does a criminal look like to you? When you think of youth incarceration, what do you picture? Do you think of violent criminals who need to be segregated from society? Do you even think of them at all? When we discuss the prison industrial complex, we often forget about youth incarceration. The prison industrial complex doesn't just apply to adults, as is evident by the school-to-prison pipeline. As it stands, youth incarceration is just another symptom of America's staggering incarceration rates. As described in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, the nation's incarceration rates, specifically in racial demographics, reflect "a form of racial and social control." In an interview with PBS, Alexander notes that "our incarceration rate is six to 10 times higher than other countries' around the world." She adds, "It’s not crime that makes us more punitive in the United States. It’s the way we respond to crime and how we view those people who have been labeled criminals."

Have we been conditioned to accept a facade?

In America, we want our criminals to come with cut and dry crimes. We sleep better at night believing that the current justice system is working and that those who are locked away are given appropriate punishments. It's easier to believe that it's business as usual, rather than realizing that what we think of as "good" and "bad" may actually be a reflection of our biases.

The Youth First Initiative is an organization that aims to tackle youth incarceration reform, specifically in the way in which we treat youth placed in the juvenile justice system. Liz Ryan, the President of Youth First Initiative, advocates not just for youth prison reform, but the complete dismantling of the current system, which is much more focused on retaining the prisoner population than getting them back into society. In addition to the mental and emotional toll that incarceration takes on youth, the families of those incarcerated must deal with the overwhelming financial strains of having children trapped in the system. For Ryan, youth incarceration is a national epidemic that doesn't get nearly enough attention. Teen Vogue Ryan to learn more about the organization and the realities of youth incarceration.

Teen Vogue: What is the Youth First Initiative?

Liz Ryan: The Youth First Initiative is a grassroots effort and I helped to get it started several years ago. Earlier this year, we officially launched the campaign by releasing a national report, The Geography of America’s Dysfunctional & Racially Disparate Youth Incarceration Complex, about the 50,000 youth in the US who are incarcerated in youth prisons or other out-of-home confinement in the juvenile justice system. The report shows that youth prisons are the signature feature of state juvenile justice systems and that this approach isn't safe, isn't fair and doesn't work. It should be abandoned and replaced with less costly and more effective community-based alternatives to incarceration. We also released a national poll showing that the public supports alternatives to incarceration and believes that youth can be held accountable for their actions without resorting to incarceration.

TV: How does Youth First work with other advocacy organizations?

LR: The Youth First Initiative is a national advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of youth by dismantling the youth prison model, closing youth prisons and redirecting resources towards effective community-based programs for youth. Youth First supports locally-led advocacy campaigns in the states by providing technical assistance and supporting the leadership of directly impacted youth and their families. Youth First also partners with national organizations to maximize the impact of state efforts and strengthen coordination between national and state organizations.

TV: What has been one of the campaign’s biggest accomplishments thus far?

LR: Youth First supported the creation and launch of campaigns in several states, and campaign partners in Virginia, Kansas and Connecticut have achieved some big accomplishments. In Virginia, the General Assembly passed a budget in 2016 to provide for the redirection of resources from youth prisons to community-based alternatives to incarceration. In Kansas, the legislature approved and the governor signed into law a comprehensive reform bill to reduce the state’s reliance on incarceration, and the governor subsequently announced the closure of the Larned youth prison. And in Connecticut, the governor has announced the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS). There are many more actions to take to dismantle the youth prison model and these efforts show us that progress towards our goals can be made.

TV: What are common misconceptions about youth incarceration?

LR: Common misconceptions about youth incarceration are that it is safe, it is fair, it is needed and it works. But in reality…

It isn't safe: Youth are subjected to intolerable levels of physical abuse, sexual violence, excessive use of physical and chemical restraints, and overuse of isolation and often subjected to solitary confinement.

It isn't fair: incarceration disproportionately impacts youth of color: African-American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are 1.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.

It is over-used: Over two-thirds of youth in youth prisons, according to the latest U.S. Department of Justice data, are there for offenses such as status offenses (running away, skipping school), technical violations, public order, drug and property offenses. These youth do not pose a risk to public safety and could be more effectively served in the community.

It actually doesn’t work: Incarceration dramatically increases the likelihood that youth will reoffend.

TV: What are the economic effects of youth incarceration on a personal, family level, and a state and national level?

LR: The economic impacts of youth incarceration are staggering. Youth are placed in youth prisons and other out-of-home confinement that aren’t safe, put them further behind in school, and do not provide the kinds of supports and services they need to become successful adults. Families are also impacted as every state requires or permits parents to be charged for the cost of their children's incarceration. States are spending roughly $5 billion per year for a system of youth incarceration that doesn’t work. These resources could instead be invested in community-based programs and services for youth that research shows work. The Justice Policy Institute’s report, Sticker Shock, attempts to calculate the full cost of incarcerating youth.

TV: How are families impacted by youth incarceration? How does family life impact whether or not someone will repeat their offense?

LR: Almost all children who get incarcerated will one day return to their families after they are released from youth prison. Incarceration does nothing to support families or help them to guide their children, and instead, it breaks crucial family ties and penalizes families. Youth are often placed in facilities far from their families, with limited access and visits.

Incarcerating youth also impacts youths’ siblings as most states don’t allow siblings to visit.

TV: Do youth prisons use solitary confinement as a form of punishment?

LR: Solitary confinement is used in youth prisons all over the country. It is often not called solitary confinement and referred to by other terms. It is extremely harmful to youth and it is one of the reasons we are calling for the dismantling of the youth prison model.

TV: Can a family fight their child’s disposition [sentencing] at all?

LR: In the juvenile justice system, we use the word "disposition" instead of the word "sentencing." In the juvenile justice system, families have no formal role in the juvenile court process and families are often not included in the treatment plans for youth even though the research shows that kids thrive best in families and that the programs that are the most effective at intervening with high-risk kids are programs that engage youths' families.

TV: If the system is broken, what can we do to change youth incarceration?

LR: We need a robust array of opportunities, services and programs for youth, a "continuum of care." The continuum should include educational supports, employment and training, health care and behavioral health services, recreation and arts programming. The research shows that these programs work best with youth and can serve many more youth for the same cost as incarcerating one child.


This piece originally appeared in Teen Vogue.

You can follow Liz on Twitter at @LizRyanYJ.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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