Group Calls For Closure Of Youth Prisons

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Thursday, March 3, 2016 - 5:15pm
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(Photo courtesy of Arizona Department Juvenile Corrections)
The Adobe Mountain School in Phoenix is Arizona's only youth prison.

A national campaign to end juvenile incarceration called Youth First launched an effort Thursday to close the country’s youth prisons.

Liz Ryan, president of Youth First, announced the campaign on a conference.

“On any given day in the United States, 54,000 young people are incarcerated in youth prisons or confined in out-of-home placements in the juvenile justice system,” Ryan said.

According to Youth First, rates of incarceration show a bias against minorities and claims locking up young offenders exposes them to violence, unsafe conditions and increases their chances of ending up back behind bars.

“Youth who’ve been incarcerated in youth prison experience high recidivism rates,” Ryan said. “It substantially increases the likelihood that they will be incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system.”

Arizona has one youth prison: the Adobe Mountain School in Phoenix. It’s located on 300 acres and consists of about 40 buildings, some of which are more than 40 years old. The detention center has a capacity for 650 children, but it currently holds a little more than 200.

Dona Marie Markley is the agency head at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, which runs the Adobe Mountain School. She defends conditions at the prison. She said the state is working to put more money into newer facilities and emphasized that the children confined there have access to quality programs and rehabilitative care.

“We provide the children with an education,” Markley said. “Last year we issued over 80 high school diplomas. We have our own health system at this facility – doctors, dentists, medical personnel, nurses, psychiatrists.”

Markley said they’re also extensively audited and are in full compliance with state and federal agencies that inspect the facility on a regular basis. The children at Adobe Mountain are between the ages of 14 and 17, and the average stay in prison is about seven months. Markley said the state only directs the most serious youth offenders to the prison.

“These are youth that have felony convictions – typically multiple felony convictions. Many of those are property crimes, crimes against persons, drug offenses and weapons violations,” Markley said.

While many of the children have the opportunity to have their criminal records destroyed, activists say many of them will end up back in jail as adults.

Beth Rosenberg, director of the Children’s Action Alliance estimated the recidivism rate for children that have been in the Adobe Mountain School is 46 percent. Her group believes that children should be treated at the county level by the County Juvenile Courts and their corresponding programs.

“The youth are closer to home,” Rosenberg said. “They can be kept in their school programs close to home. We know that the outcomes for youth are also better and public safety is better for youth when they are treated in their home location.”

Rosenberg said another benefit of treatment at the county level is that it’s much cheaper than sending them to the state facility. For a child that spends 7 or 8 months at the Adobe Mountain School, the cost can be more than $80,000. This figure includes housing and medical costs as well as programming.

However, funding for the Juvenile Corrections Department changed in 2015. While the budget was once composed of state appropriated money, now counties are required to contribute a total of $12 million dollars to the budget which, as Rosenberg explained, has changed treatment incentives.

“We basically told the counties that ‘We’re not going to give you more money for community-based treatment services, but we want you to support secure facilities,’" Rosenberg said.

She pointed out that the new budgeting is not based on how many children counties send to the youth prison but instead on county population.

“Even if counties are doing well and they’re keeping youth in their communities and public safety is still maintained, those counties are being charged for supporting a secure facility that might not provide the best public safety or youth outcomes for the state,” Rosenberg said.

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