Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Despite the rhetoric from the president and the Justice Department, the movement to resist mass incarceration has a way forward.
As he left the courthouse on his final day serving as head of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, Zachary Fardon handed reporters an open letter. He was one of 46 U.S. Attorneys sacked by President Donald Trump, in part because he didn’t fit within the White House’s (and U.S. Justice Department’s) new criminal justice scheme. In the five-page document, he offered his prescription for saving the youth of Chicago, now perhaps the most embattled city in the United States.
Brick and mortar. Create a place. Call it anything. Fund it with federal, state, or philanthropic funds, or some combination. But do not continue this madness of annualized state or federal grant funding to where all these not-for-profits have time to do is fight for those peanuts, compete with each other and hope to survive. That serves no one. There is plenty of money and good will in this town. And there are millions of federal dollars spent across this town every year. So, let’s find that money and put it to use by creating youth centers, brick and mortar, funding social workers and experts, and intervening to save the lives of kids and young adults.
This is precisely the kind of alternative to incarceration that has been pushed for decades by those working to stop the criminalization of black and brown kids. And Fardon’s advocacy of it probably helped get him fired.
For criminal justice reformers, especially those who’d like to see the idea of adequately funded youth centers become more of the norm, the rhetoric of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is deeply troubling. The prison business is likely to be booming again—as the markets are already indicating—and black and Latino teens and young adults will help fuel that rebound. Prison reform advocates who’ve been working for decades to phase out these troublesome properties and decrease the nation’s ignominious incarceration rates should, understandably, be panicking.
But one new report offers ample reasons for optimism that progress on prison reform can and will continue. In “Breaking Down the Walls,” a report released last week by the Youth First Initiative, youth advocates chronicle several successful advocacy campaigns, most of which took place during the 1990s and early 2000s, that resulted in youth prison closings. These campaigns also led to the creation and expansion of the kind of rehabilitative youth centers Fardon wished for in his outgoing letter. And they achieved these results in the face of politicians and law enforcement officials who were hostile to their efforts.
“One of the reasons this report is so important in this historical moment is that it shows what local people led by children and families can do against significant odds in very conservative places where there are powerful counter-forces,” says Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor and the lead authors of the report. “It is in some ways a playbook for pushing back against these forces that now are so prevalent in the national arena, but were always prevalent in local politics.”
One example: The successful “No More Youth Jails” campaign waged in New York City that began in the 1990s, when the NYPD was ramping up its controversial (and ultimately ineffective) stop-and-frisk practices. According to the report, juvenile crime and arrests dropped 28 percent between 1993 and 2000. But the city was still expanding its number of youth prisons, mainly to detain young suspects as they awaited trials. Among the prisons opened was the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx—a center notorious for rampant physical abuse, pest infestations, and deaths among its young inmates, and which had been closed once before.
In response, several youth-led organizations formed the Justice 4 Youth Coalition, which spawned the “No More Youth Jails” campaign in 2001. Closing Spofford was its primary mission, along with urging the city to cancel its plans to spend $65 million on new youth detention centers. The coalition succeeded in not only shuttering Spofford but also convincing the city to redirect funding away from detention centers and toward community-based alternatives.
One of the novel tactics teen activists used was obtaining Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schedule (back when such things weren’t readily available to the public) and following him around for a week, pelting him with questions about detention centers. The kids basically bugged the mayor until he relented and gave up on building them. “The leadership of families and youth is critical to campaign success because actualizing that leadership builds the architecture of reform,” reads the report.
Those victories became the foundation for an ensuing larger campaign that triggered a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into youth prisons across the state. New York ended up closing 20 youth detention facilities by 2012. The youth coalition met strong opposition from the union that represented youth prison employees, which argued that closing these prisons would lead to massive job losses. But the activists were able to make lemonade of that argument, by convincing Governor Andrew Cuomo to reinvest the money saved from the prison closings into infrastructure upgrades throughout the state, which would employ the laid-off prison staff.
The Youth First report points to five other successful campaigns, in Louisiana, California, Mississippi, Texas, and Washington, D.C.; all of them encountered stringent opposition, particularly from politicians who argued that it would be too expensive to divert youth away from prisons because of the costs involved in alternative programs—arguments that turned out untrue.
A new report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) examining the impacts of new laws raising the minimum age for teen offenders to be submitted to adult courts helps explain why. (In dozens of states, including New York, 16- and 17-year-olds can be subjected to the adult criminal justice system—which is how Kalief Browder ended up detained for three years in Rikers Island as a teenager, as he awaited trial.)
In each of the states the JPI report explores, none of the economic doom forecasts made by opponents of these laws came to pass. In Connecticut, foes said the juvenile justice budget would bloat by $100 million—instead it only rose by $2 million. New Hampshire legislators warned the shift would cost an extra $5.3 million—it ended up costing an extra nothing. And in Illinois, legislators anticipated a 35 percent increase in new juvenile justice caseloads, along with accompanying costs for new courtrooms and more prosecutors; those costs “never materialized,” according to the report.
A major reason why these professed cost overruns never happened was because juvenile crime has dropped over the past decade—yes, even in Illinois. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the number of young people across the country “confined [in detention centers/prisons] and placed out of the home [probation services, for example]” dropped by 50 percent between 1999 and 2013. For young violent offenders, the number “confined or placed out of the home” decreased by 43 percent in that same time period.
The rate has fallen to the point where some states are feeling comfortable rethinking—or getting rid of—probation services for juvenile offenders. Stephen Bishop, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation who helped prepare the JPI report, says that probation “is simply not effective.”
“Simply assigning someone to a probation officer who’s going to check on them once or twice a month for very short visits and give a very long list of conditions and rules to follow—the research says that in itself does not motivate behavior change, and it actually has no impact on recidivism,” says Bishop.
In his open letter, former U.S. attorney Farndon recalled his deepening frustrations as he tried to stem Chicago’s rising tide of youth violence.
So, I put my head down and I went to work, and I studied. I learned data, numbers, statistics. I picked up each and every aspect of law enforcement’s efforts, task forces, initiatives combatting violence—I turned those efforts over and looked at them from every angle. I went into the most violence-afflicted neighborhoods and met with families, kids, teachers, clergy, and cops. I listened. I learned. And all while I worked, best I could, with my colleagues at the USAO to make sure we were continuing to make good federal cases—gang cases, gun cases—that would have no impact on the violence.
At no moment during those three-and-a-half years did the gun violence abate. Every month, every year, innocents died, kids died. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 I showed pictures during speeches I gave—pictures of children, sweet and innocent, and dead from gun fire.
This recent uptick in violent crime in certain cities has been frequently invoked by Attorney General Sessions, and his Justice Department is not likely to talk much about closing prisons in the months and years ahead. As Sessions wrote in his March 8 memo to federal prosecutors across the U.S.:
Turning back our nation’s recent rise in violent crime is a top priority for the Department of Justice, and it requires decisive action from our federal prosecutors. I’m urging each of them to continue working closely with their counterparts at all levels, and to use every tool we have to put violent offenders behind bars and keep our citizens safe.
Those tools, according to the memo, include federal laws like the Hobbs Act, the RICO Act, and other laws that prohibit certain individuals from buying or possessing guns. Sessions also implores, in his memo, prosecutors to take advantage of drug laws, such as the Controlled Substances Act, to reduce violent crime. Such directives are the opposite of what the latest research and policies say about how law enforcement should deal with drug offenders.
“Federal prosecutors will be directed to use more of the same failed tactics of lengthy prison sentences instead of what these communities need: public health, opportunity, and relief from mass incarceration,” wrote José Santos Woss, legislative associate for domestic policy at The Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Addressing a group of law enforcement officials in Richmond, Virginia, on March 15, Sessions made clear what his priority would be in terms of attacking drug crimes. “Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product,” said Sessions. “One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs, and we will do just that.”
As for drug treatment programs: “Treatment programs are also vital,” said Sessions. “But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.”
Poor black and Latino youth will, no doubt, suffer the brunt of Sessions’ blitzkrieg, especially in Chicago, where gun and drug crime offenders are increasingly getting younger. “In 1965, offenders from ages 15-24 made up about 30 percent of all homicide-level offenders; in 1995, it was about 65 percent,” Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser noted a 2013 article. This phenomenon is truer in Chicago than in any other major city.
It should be noted that Chicago, alone, is responsible for a significant percentage of the much-ballyhooed increase in violent crime experienced across the U.S. over the past two years. Chicago’s gang and gun problems are nothing trivial. But the kids who are caught up in that violence could probably use a healthy dose of trauma aid and mental health care—not to mention a Marshall Plan-scale infusion of jobs, educational resources, and economic stabilization for their families. The Sessions plan might only provide more jail beds. One of Sessions’ first acts was to delete President Obama’s executive order that phased out the federal government’s contracts with private prisons—a policy Sessions said “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
The problem with this is that for the U.S. to make progress in extinguishing its mass incarceration crisis, it will have to deal with violent offenders differently—meaning not putting people who’ve committed homicide and armed robberies in prison (or at least imprisoning them for shorter periods). As it stands, most of the existing criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration are reserved for non-violent offenders. When looking at the decarceration trends in the juvenile justice realm, 70 percent of the reduction in youth offenders “confined or placed out of the home” is for nonviolent offenses. Even former New Orleans Police Chief Ron Serpas—co-director of an organization that rejects “tough-on-crime” policies—is unwilling to strongly commit to plans that exempt some violent offenders from jail.
But there is no way for the U.S. to relinquish its title as incarceration capital of the world without rethinking how to handle those convicted of violent offenses.
“What we do know about young adults is that where they’re at developmentally, they’re highly influenced by peer pressure, they struggle with regulating their emotions, and their offending behavior is more symptomatic of opportunity and not criminal intent,” says the Casey Foundation’s Bishop. “When you think of a tough-on-crime approach and you see the numbers of youth of color penetrating the adult system, you end up with a lot of young people of color looking at lengthy prison sentences for offenses they committed that are simply about immaturity. But there’s still an opportunity to make an impact on their behavior.”
This is the new challenge, and the Sessions Justice Department will no doubt make it difficult to meet it in any meaningful way. But remember that there is wide public support for alternatives to incarceration: According to new polling data from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, only 18 percent of Americans believe the role of jails for people who receive convictions should be to punish a third say the role of jails should be to prevent people from committing future crimes through treatment or rehabilitation.
Besides, as the “Breaking Down the Walls” report reminds us, prison reform activists have been here before—and were victorious. “There is so much despair about where we are right now politically,” says report co-author Sheila Bedi. “All of the forces of racism and the forces that are pushing back against the gains of the anti-imprisonment movement. But it’s important to look at these locally driven campaigns to see what they were able to achieve. These young people and their families were able to push back and make a huge amount of progress. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from those stories.”