Building Communities Not Prisons: The Future of Public Safety

Editor's note: This week DC Action welcomes guest blogger Eddie Ferrer, chief operating officer of DC Lawyers for Youth.

The United States has an unhealthy fascination with filling jail cells and prison blocks under the guise of feeling safe. Recent estimates place the total number of adults behind bars in the US at over 2.3 million, a substantial proportion of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Between 1970 and 2005, the US prison population rose 700%, 16 times the rate of overall growth of the general population. As a result, despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prison population.

Sadly, America’s over-reliance on incarceration extends to its children as well. According to a new data snapshot released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation entitled Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States, “the United States still locks up a larger share of the youth population than any other developed country.”

Thankfully, there is hope that we are turning a corner with regard to our ineffective over-dependence on youth incarceration. According to the data snapshot, since youth confinement peaked in 1995 at 107,637 youth confined on a single day, the number of youth confined in the United States has dropped by nearly 37,000 to 70,792 in 2010. Additionally, the rate of youth confined has dropped 41% during that 15 year time period, from 381 per 100,000 youth to 225 per 100,00 youth.

While the District of Columbia has mirrored the national decline in youth incarceration, America’s overuse of confinement is on display nowhere more than in the District of Columbia.  According to the KIDS COUNT data snapshot, while the rate of youth confinement decreased 26% between 1997 and 2010, DC still confines its youth at a higher rate (428 per 100,000 youth) than any other state in the country except Wyoming.

The reality for the District is that our drop in youth confinement has come largely as a result of replacing the 180-bed Oakhill Youth Detention Center with the smaller 60-bed New Beginnings Youth Development Center in 2009. While many at the time believed that such a reduction in the number of beds would have an adverse effect on public safety, their fears have not been borne out. Indeed, since youth arrests hit their peak in 2009 – the same year New Beginnings was opened – youth arrests have fallen 26%, from 4,086 in 2009 to approximately 3,022 in 2012.  Thus, as we have seen happen all over the country, youth can be supervised and rehabilitated in the community instead of juvenile jails and prisons without any adverse effect on public safety.

Nevertheless, the District still takes far too many youth out of their homes as a result of court contact. For instance, in 2011 alone, DC court-involved youth spent more than 200,000 nights in out-of-home placements – detention in a secure center, residential treatment center or group home – at a cost to District taxpayers of over $75 million. Considering over 80% of youth arrests in the District were for non-violent offenses and 52% of commitments to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services were for misdemeanor offenses, there is still significant space and opportunity to reduce the District’s over-reliance on out-of-home placements without jeopardizing public safety. 

So how do we continue moving away from a confinement-centric policy while continuing to improve public safety in the District? Simply put, the District needs to shift its focus and money from filling buildings to building communities. DC can do this by following three of the recommendations in the KIDS COUNT data snapshot

First, the District should follow the examples set by states like Alaska, California and Texas and expressly prohibit commitments for less-serious offenses. With over half of commitments to DYRS involving youth adjudicated of misdemeanor offenses, this is one area where the DC Council could step in to provide a narrow policy fix to help further reduce our overuse of commitment and out-of-home placements.

Second, the District needs to invest more in developing and implementing high-quality community-based alternatives to detention, commitment and incarceration, as well as examining which neighborhoods are in most need of these types of interventions. Currently, the District is innovating in a number of areas in this respect, including Court Social Services’ BARJ centers and the Juvenile Behavioral Diversion Program, which are successful alternatives to incarceration. However, in order to avoid more commitments, the District needs to do more to ensure that youth on probation actually are receiving the services and supports – specifically mental health and mentoring services – that are ordered by the court. Additionally, the District should examine the possibility of partnering with partners like Youth Advocates Program, Inc. or Youth Villages to provide evidence-based, community alternatives to commitment.

Third, the District needs to continue to adopt best practices that have been proven in other jurisdictions. In particular, the District should expand its use of diversion to include civil citations, a program that allows youth who admit to committing low-level misdemeanors to avoid arrest by agreeing to participate in social service programs, mentoring and community service.  Additionally, the District must continue to improve its DC YouthLink Initiative, which is modeled after proven community-based systems of care in Milwaukee and Wayne County.  Milwaukee and Wayne County have been able to improve both youth outcomes and public safety by creating a system of community-based care coordinators that connect youth and families with the resources and services they need to be successful. These are a few of many examples that demonstrate that successful evidence-based rehabilitative programs are often more effective than confinement.

By being smart, deliberate, grounded in research and by following the recommendations made in the KIDS COUNT data snapshot, DC can be an example for the rest of the country.

Eddie Ferrer is the Chief Operating Officer of DC Lawyers for Youth, a non-profit action tank striving to improve DC’s juvenile justice system by keeping youth out of the system, providing holistic representation when they come into contact with the system, and building supportive and restorative relationships between the community and DC’s court-involved youth.