COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOWO): Ohio’s three juvenile prisons are among the oldest in the nation, and there is a new push to shutter them along with facilities in 28 other states.
A new national campaign calling for the closures, Youth First, released a poll Thursday showing that about 77 percent of Americans favor changing the focus of the juvenile-justice system from incarceration to rehabilitation.
Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition in Ohio, said prisons are not a safe, supportive environment that’s needed to help troubled kids become positive, contributing members of society.
“When youths go away to a facility, they may learn skills in a vacuum where they’re away from their peers, their family, their environment,” she said. “But community-based programs really help teach a youth skills that they need where they live.”
Davies said Ohio has been a national leader in transitioning to safe, less expensive, more effective programs. She said there were nearly 3,000 youths in locked-down facilities in 1992, compared with about 1,000 today. Ohio once had more than 10 juvenile prisons and is down to three.
Da’Quon Beaver spent most of his youth in juvenile prisons in Virginia and now advocates for reform. He said anything that happens in an adult prison also occurs in youth facilities, including fights, riots and sexual abuse. Beaver said there are very few opportunities for education.
“For 12 hours a day, our kids aren’t doing anything,” he said. “They’re not learning. They’re not being rehabilitated. They’re sitting in a unit with no windows, watching a box TV with about four channels. But the worst of this abuse came from how far our youth are from their families.”
Along with the poll, Youth First also released a new mapping tool of youth facilities as well as the racial disparities among committed youths. Davies said youths of color are much more likely to be locked up despite the fact that they commit similar crimes as white youths.
“When black and white youths admit in an anonymous survey what offenses they do, they self-report same levels of delinquency offenses,” she said. “So this is a true disparity and it’s worse the deeper that youth go into the system.”
Seventy percent of respondents in the poll supported requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system, and more than half favor redirecting the savings from closing youth prisons to community-based programs.
The poll and tools are available online at youthfirstinitiative.org.