Amid this election season's biting rhetoric, it's encouraging to see our country engaged in a substantive debate about reforming our broken criminal justice system, with headlines focusing on bipartisan support for bail and sentencing reform and a push to end mass incarceration. While not attracting as much attention, an equally important movement is changing the way our country handles youth justice, including growing momentum to close the large, outdated youth prisons that still serve as the signature feature of many state systems.

These institutions, often given euphemistic names like youth rehabilitation centers or training schools, are rife with abuse and racial inequality, and they are widely overused. If juvenile corrections were a single prison system, it would be our nation's fifth largest, with 54,000 kids caught up in it.


Here in Maryland, despite declines in the number of incarcerated youth, the system is still in need of substantial downsizing. Only four in 10 incarcerated youth are high-risk, and one third are locked up for a violation of probation rather than a new offense. While African Americans make up only a third of all Maryland youth, they make up three quarters of the young people in Maryland's youth prisons, whereas white youth make up half of the state's youth population but only one sixth of incarcerated youth. The cost of youth confinement in Maryland averages an astonishing $262,030 per youth per year, dwarfing the $13,829 annual per pupil costs in Maryland's public schools. What does it say about a society that is willing to spend 19 times as much to incarcerate its children as it spends to educate them?

As former leaders of the systems purportedly designed to rehabilitate youth in Delaware, New York City, and Washington, D.C., we personally witnessed many of the problems with youth prisons. All too often, those institutions are factories of failure that resort to punishment and separation when they should be focusing on guidance and education.

Many of the deplorable conditions in youth prisons are impossible for even a casual observer to miss — from physical abuse to rats and cockroaches to drug use to youth locked in their cells so long they're forced to urinate and defecate in them. Other problems are harder to see but may result in even greater societal cost, like the mental and emotional isolation that torments individual youth and the high rates of re-offending, in which around three-quarters of youth are rearrested within a few years of release. No matter how we measure success, it's clear that youth prisons aren't working.

Fortunately, that conclusion is becoming more evident not only to former system administrators but also to public officials. In 2012, New York City enacted, with bipartisan support, Close to Home legislation that has since transferred all New York City youth in state custody to small homes closer to their communities rather than large, distant state institutions. Since then, the number of New York City youth placed into custody has dropped by 53 percent, while juvenile arrests in the city have declined by half.

Earlier this year, Illinois announced the closing of one of the state's five youth prisons. And in Connecticut — where black, Latino and Native American youth make up 22 percent of the state's youth population but 83 percent of the state's incarcerated youth — the governor has proposed closing the sole remaining Juvenile Training School. Virginia has also been pushing to replace the state's two remaining centralized, large facilities with smaller, developmentally-appropriate alternatives, recognizing that the youth are worse off coming out than when they went in.

These changes are not happening in a vacuum. New national polling released last month shows that changes to our youth justice system garner overwhelming bipartisan support.

Across the board, the polls show strong backing for replacing these institutions with more effective approaches, including investing in an array of community-based alternatives to incarceration for the vast majority of youth who do not pose a serious threat to public safety and who don't need secure care. The public also agrees that, for the very small number of youth at greatest risk of committing the most serious offenses who may need secure care, we can do much better. Reforms ensuring that incarcerated youth are placed close to home in much smaller facilities and requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in confinement have more than 70 percent support.

With our electorate as divided and polarized as ever, the broad consensus that it's time for a youth justice system that rehabilitates, rather than merely punishes, is all the more salient. And while change seems to be coming, for 54,000 incarcerated kids, their families and our communities, it can't possibly come soon enough.

Patrick McCarthy (www.aecf.org/contact/) is the president and CEO at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former division director at the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. Vincent Schiraldi (Vincent_Schiraldi@hks.harvard.edu) is a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice and previously directed juvenile corrections for Washington, D.C. and was New York City commissioner of probation.