Juvenile Incarceration: The Need for Reform

Soros Open Societys
Open Society Foundations
Liz Ryan
October 31, 2011
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In testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee hearing “Meeting the Challenges Faced by Girls in the Juvenile Justice System,” on March 11, 2010, Rachel Carrión of New York shared her experiences in that state’s juvenile justice system.
 
Sentenced to 12 months in a placement center in upstate New York, Rachel stated that she had "some horrible experiences" which had left her "scarred for life."  She witnessed and was subjected to violence, particularly excessive force by guards designed to "keep control in the center."  She talked about the sexual exploitation of girls by guards and the rampant availability of drugs sold by guards to residents in exchange for favors by the girls.
 
Rachel eventually received assistance from a residential treatment program that helped her address her addiction, obtain her GED and get training to become a home health aide.  This program was close to home and gave her the opportunity to stay in contact and receive support from her family.  She had access to counselors and positive interaction with her peers.
 
The experience in the juvenile prison and the treatment center "could not be more different" according to Rachel.  What she experienced in the juvenile prison not only did not help her to deal with the substance abuse issue she was facing, she was removed from her family support system and was subjected to exploitation and abuse from facility guards.  By contrast, she was able to get the positive rehabilitation support in another program that brought her closer to her community and family.
 
In the past several years, New York has undertaken major reforms to address the kinds of negative experiences that Rachel and other young women faced in juvenile prisons throughout the state.  Juvenile prisons have been closed, juvenile incarceration rates are down and many fewer youths have been sent "upstate" to juvenile prisons such as the one Rachel was placed in.
 
With State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Lippman's announcement last week calling on New York to continue juvenile justice reforms by changing the age of criminal responsibility in New York to 18, New York is poised to take further steps to remove young people from the lifelong negative consequences of prosecution and incarceration in the adult criminal justice system.
 
In closing her testimony, Rachel encouraged the committee to "make sure that no other girl has to go through what I did to get the treatment and help that they need."  Rachel is to be commended for her courage in sharing her experience. New York needs to continue on its course to reduce juvenile incarceration and also take further steps to keep youth out of the adult criminal justice system.

This article was originally published by Open Societies Foundation. It is reprinted here with permission.

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