For Utah's youngest criminals, prison smells like potpourri.
Life is simple. Home is a 7-by-10 foot room with a bed, desk and bookshelves that look like they were probably poured out the back of the same cement truck. There's a half-inch foam mat to make sleeping bearable and a stainless steel toilet in the corner. Through a slit-like window, children can watch the wind riffle through the sun-browned grass of a baseball field they built themselves. Here they dream about freedom and rue the decisions that sent them to the Decker Lake Youth Center to be locked up behind a stereotype-shattering, flimsy chain-link fence.
But life in the compound, a low-key brick building tucked behind a golf course at 2700 South in West Valley City, is mostly comfortable and laid back. Mornings and afternoons are spent learning about literature and algebra in classrooms not unlike those in nearby Granite School District. In the evenings the children gather in a homey rec room for group therapy with a motherly social worker, play basketball and — if there's time — challenge one another to games of ping-pong. Here, there are no red-faced guards barking orders boot-camp style. Instead, gray-haired schoolteachers in cozy cardigans smile brightly at little vandals, robbers and knife-wielding gangsters and say things like, "These boys are my pride and joy."
It is a far cry from the rat-infested juvenile detention centers that, for the past two decades, have been making U.S. headlines for jaw-dropping human rights violations like chaining youth to their beds 23 hours a day, beating them with bricks and forcing them to exercise without water. Homey, therapeutic Decker Lake Youth Center just might be a peek into the future of juvenile detention in the United States.
When it comes to dealing with wayward youth, the United States is the toughest in the world. Although juvenile arrest rates are only marginally higher here than many comparable countries, incarceration rates are nearly five times the rate of the next most punitive nation. The majority of America's incarcerated children are behind bars, not because they are violent, but because they committed property, drug and public order offenses. Aside from Somalia, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole.
America's affinity for youth prisons isn't without cost. In many states the price tag for locking up one child is more than $200,000 annually. For some, federal investigations into inhumane conditions have led to court-ordered reforms that cost millions. All that money may be for naught. An avalanche of research has emerged in recent years that suggests locking kids up in 100-, 200- and 300-bed institutions doesn't work — either to improve public safety or reform youth.
Budget cuts, scandal and sky-high re-offense rates are forcing many states to pose the question: Is it worth it? For an increasing number, the answer is no. States are shuttering prisons, building smaller, less punitive facilities like Utah's Decker Lake Youth Center and diverting more youth to home-based programs. Since the beginning of 2007, 18 states have shut down 52 correctional facilities, according to a report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in December. Nationwide, the total number of children in correctional facilities has dropped more than 30 percent during the last decade. The number locked up in long-term detention centers declined by more than 40 percent.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court in 2005 banned sentencing juveniles to death as unconstitutional. In 2010, the court held children convicted of non-homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. This month, justices will hear the cases of two 14-year-old boys facing life sentences for murder to determine if, even for the most heinous crimes, locking up children and throwing away the key constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The country is barreling toward a kinder, gentler era in juvenile justice, experts say, but the road ahead is still hazy. As prisons close, states are scrambling to figure out the next steps. While advocates for children's rights are hopeful, some worry a less punitive approach in the juvenile justice system may push prosecutors and judges to try more children as adults.
"We are a long way from coming to our senses, but we are in the midst of a huge trend toward deinstitutionalization," said Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. "The question is, will we take this to its logical conclusion and create a continuum of care that will actually make a difference?"
The stories have similar beginnings. A boy and a girl from broken homes got in trouble for stealing. For Michael Kemp, 22, of Washington D.C., the age of first arrest was 12. He helped himself to a bicycle a neighbor left unchained in the front yard. Police caught Stephanie Garcia, 23, of New York, stuffing her backpack full of goods in the corner drugstore at age 11.
But they unravel very differently.
Kemp was in and out of juvenile detention so many times he lost count. Because he was a four-hour drive away from home, Kemp lost contact with his family. Behind bars, he said, "I wasn't getting a lot good counseling from adults."
Investigations into the Washington, D.C., youth detention center where he was corralled — which at its peak housed 208 kids — revealed that staff members had beaten juveniles with bricks, knives, chairs and milk cartons in addition to old-fashioned hands-on beatings. Children's eyes swelled shut. They suffered broken teeth and noses, dislocated shoulders and kidney injuries. "I spent a lot of time sitting around with a bunch of other kids, talking about crime and how to do it better," he said. Released, he headed straight back to the streets. His crimes got progressively worse, until, one day, at 16 years old, Kemp found himself in adult prison for armed robbery.
Garcia, who confessed, "I shoplifted every single day," racked up a formidable list of charges as well. But when it came time to dole out punishment, her judge opted to take a more therapeutic approach. After three months in a small New York group home with minimal security, she was assigned to an experimental program that connected her with individual and family therapy, set her up with an adult mentor and allowed her to stay at home.
Both stories have happy endings. Both Kemp and Garcia have left their days of crime behind. But, while Kemp believes he succeeded despite the system, Garcia believes she succeeded because of it.
Garcia's mentor helped her deal with the problems she was having with her family and, in just one year of intense studying, she completed three years of high school. She graduated with A's and B's and is now a happily engaged, stay-at-home mom of two.
"Having one person believe in me changed my attitude," Garcia said. "(My mentor) didn't just change my life, she helped all my brothers and sisters, too."
In adult prison, Kemp didn't have access to formal schooling, but he worked hard to earn his GED. When he was released at 21, he spent some time bouncing between homeless shelters because, "I couldn't go back to my old neighborhood, my old friends and my old life of crime." The felony on his record made it tough to find a job, but he eventually found work as a youth advocate, talking about his experiences in the corrections system in hopes of inspiring reform.
"It was hard to do it all by myself, but you gotta do what you gotta do," he said. "I didn't like the way my life was headed."
By sharing their stories, they both hoped to promote the same message.
"Don't give up on kids," Kemp said.
"There is hope," Garcia said.
Forces for change
The public, for the most part, favors a more gentle approach to youth crime. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe juvenile justice should be more focused on prevention and rehabilitation than it is now, according to a survey published in October by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Campaign for Youth Justice. Just 15 percent believe it should be more focused on punishing youths, while 1 percent believe the country has the formula figured out.
Research backs reform, too. Hundreds of studies in recent years have shown that putting youth behind bars increases the likelihood of committing future crime. A recent study from the Arkansas Department of Youth Services found prior commitment is the single most significant factor in predicting a youth's future success — even more so than gang membership and poor family relationships. Across the nation, as many as 50 to 70 percent of the youth who were locked up were rearrested within two years of release, according a meta-analysis of more than 400 studies. By comparison, just 32 to 37 percent of those who participated in therapy-heavy community-based programs had further run-ins with the law.
"Everything we know about adolescent development and what helps kids grow into productive adults indicates removing them from communities is the worst thing that we can do," Lubow said. "We're both immersing them in a criminal environment and removing them from natural supports and connections."
The trend toward deinstitutionalization in America wasn't spurred entirely — or even mostly — by research, though, said Barry Krisberg, research and policy director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. And it isn't a sign of a national embrace of the idea that America locks up too many kids, either.
"It's about money," he said. "Because of the financial crisis, we can't afford to do this. It would cost less to send the kids to the most expensive private college in the state than it does to lock them up."
The cost of locking up a child ranges from less than $100 per day to more than $700 per day, according to the American Correctional Association. On average, states spend $241 for every day a child spends behind bars, which adds up to an average annual cost of about $88,000.
In addition to operating costs, many states facing lawsuits over allegations of abuse have been hit with millions in legal fees and, if they lost, costly court-ordered reforms.
Since 1970, 57 successful lawsuits have been filed against state juvenile correction agencies, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Systematic violence, abuse and other forms of maltreatment have been documented in 39 states. In the first-ever nationally representative survey of youth behind bars, published in 2010, close to half of children indicated they were somewhat or very afraid of being physically attacked by staff or other inmates.
"You have the predator and the prey," Kemp said. "If you don't wanna be the prey, you gotta be the predator."
The Oak Hill Detention Center in Washington, D.C., where Kemp came of age, was shut down in 2009 after a years-long legal battle over conditions. The court ordered California, which has reduced the number of incarcerated children from more than 10,000 to 1,000 in the past decade, to improve youth prisons. To cut costs, Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing to shut down the state's remaining three facilities and push the responsibility of youth corrections onto communities. In New York, a federal investigation and a series of lawsuits prompted leadership to consider launching a six-year pilot program that would put New York City in charge of rehabilitating its own juvenile delinquents.
"This is a total realignment," said Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of probation for New York City. "The dominant construct in juvenile justice around the country is to have a state-run, centralized institution. We are living in this bygone era when we thought sending kids far away from home was somehow going to help them get better. New York City wants out of that."
A model for the future
In designing its new regional program, New York, like many states in the nation, is looking to states like Utah and Missouri for guidance.
Missouri, like Utah, closed its statewide youth prisons in the 1980s. Now, the most egregious offenders are placed in dormitory settings with no more than 50 beds. These regional facilities — 42 in all — are smaller and more homelike. They are peppered throughout the state so family doesn't have to travel long distances to visit. The children's daily activities center around education and therapeutic interventions.
The program's results are impressive. A full 93 percent of Missouri's offenders avoid further prison time for at least three years after release. Close to 70 percent avoid any system involvement at all.
While some movers and shakers in juvenile justice reform have labeled Missouri's program "a miracle," Tim Decker, director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, maintains it is simply a matter of "having the right focus."
"We've traded coercion, threats and punishment for a model of structure, development and healthy relationships," he said. "Our organizational culture is based on the idea that people desire to do well. We don't think the kids want to screw up their lives and become lifelong criminals. We believe young people want to be successful."
During the past decade, Decker has hosted representatives from more than 30 states that are in the process of downsizing their juvenile justice programs.
"Every state would be better off if their juvenile corrections system was more like Missouri's," Lubow said.
But he argues locking up a child should be a last resort.
"Do I think all the kids in Missouri's facilities need to be there? I would argue they don't," he said.
The majority of America's incarcerated children are locked up for property offenses, public order offenses, drug offenses and technical violations of parole, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Just 26 percent are jailed for violent crimes like aggravated assault, robbery, homicide and rape.
"Many of these kids could be in community-based intervention programs that get equally good, if not better results," Lubow said.
The key, according to Shay Bilchik, founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, is figuring out which children need to be locked up and which children would be best served at home.
The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform has spent the last several years developing a tool that could help jurisdictions scientifically assess children's risks and needs and place the right kids in the right programs. In tests, researchers used the tool to identify weaknesses in treatment plans, tweaked the programs and were able to improve individual outcomes. Last fall, the center launched the program, called the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project, in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania.
As the nation moves away from the mass incarceration of youth, it is vital that states develop good alternatives for juvenile offenders, Bilchik said.
"A lot of places are cutting back on institutionalization and saving a lot of money," he said. "That's great, but they need to be investing some of that money into developing good community options. You can't just dump the kids."
In New York, the governor has given Schiraldi $41 million of the state's savings to develop a local solution to juvenile delinquency. In addition to its home-based programs, like the one Garcia participated in, Schiraldi is looking into day-camp options, a mentoring program and family therapy.
But in Utah, budget cuts have steered the state away from beefing up alternatives for incarceration, said Susan Burke, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice. In fact, if proposed budget cuts go through, she will have to cut programs. While incarceration rates dropped in 34 states between 1997 and 2007, Utah's rate increased by about 14 percent, according to the Office of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention.
"We know the value of these community-based programs, but we cannot close down a facility as easily as we can make incremental cuts," she said.
So, for now, while the rest of the nation wrestles with juvenile justice reform, life for Utah's youngest offenders will remain much the same.
"At least," remarked on offender taking a break from English class on a recent Monday, "the food is good."
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