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54,000 youth are incarcerated in juvenile prisons in America on any given day, according to a new campaign to reform the system. (Photo: Richard Ross/Youth First)

Stop Locking Up Children, Americans Say

'The things we’re doing aren’t just wrong because we’re doing them to kids, they’re wrong because we’re doing them to humans'

Nika Knight

Americans "overwhelmingly support" shuttering all of the country's juvenile prisons and replacing them with community-based rehabilitation and prevention programs, according to a poll announced Thursday by Youth First, a new campaign to close youth prisons nationwide.

"We believe that youth prison model should be abandoned and replaced with more humane and less costly alternatives to incarceration," Liz Ryan, president of Youth First, said during a Thursday press conference.

Among other proposals to reform the system, 83 percent of poll respondents agreed with Youth First's argument that states should invest in alternatives to incarceration. A whopping 89 percent agreed with the group's proposal to design new forms of treatment that include family members. The support held across party lines: 79 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Republicans, and 81 percent of independents agreed with all of the group's suggestions for reform.

Youth First argues that the current system "isn't safe, isn't fair, and doesn't work" and advocates for a new model of treatment for youth convicted of crimes, including involving family in a treatment plan that emphasizes rehabilitation and prevention. The group also argues for closing incarceration facilities and using the resultant savings to fund new community-based programs.

Support for Youth First's reform proposals was robust even among those who have been victims of crime and those who have family members who have been victims, the poll found. Crime victims do not support the "tough on crime" rhetoric and punishment-based programs that were touted by U.S. politicians in recent decades, which were responsible for the corresponding dramatic rise in juvenile incarceration rates, the group said.

Da’Quon Beaver, an advocate with youth prison reform groups Just Children and RISE for Youth in Richmond, Virginia, described his own experience as an incarcerated child during Thursday's press conference. He was tried as an adult at age 14 and sentenced to 48 years—which meant he spent his most formative years in multiple maximum security juvenile prisons, he said.

"My experience at these prisons—they are prisons, it doesn’t matter what softer names they give them," Beaver said, "anything you can imagine happening at adult prisons are happening at these juvenile prisons."

Beaver described mentally ill children being placed in isolation units in lieu of treatment, legally-mandated school hours being called off for days at a time because of "lack of security staff," and kids doing nothing for 12 hours a day but sitting in a tiny windowless room watching "a box TV with about four channels." This is not to mention the violence, the ever-present threats of sexual assault, and the prevalent use of chemical and physical restraints by correctional officers in youth detention centers also cited by Youth First in its reform initiative.

Youth First also announced the release of an online mapping tool that allows visitors to explore the racial disparities of youth incarceration—children of color are incarcerated at far higher rates than white children charged with the same crime, the data showed. Its mapping tool also brings to light the surprising number of enormous detention centers built for children in the 19th century that are still in use today.

A bipartisan coalition of governors from three states—Connecticut, Illinois, and Virginia—have also recently committed to closing some of the old, outdated facilities in their states, the group said.

Beaver attested that the "things we’re doing aren’t just wrong because we’re doing them to kids, they’re wrong because we’re doing them to humans."


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