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Imagine A World Without Juvenile Prisons

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By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

The city of Seattle, Washington, plans to never put another young person in jail. Is it a naïvely utopian vision or an idea whose time has come?

In September, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a motion calling for zero youth incarceration. Seattle councillor Mike O'Brien told us the idea emerged as community groups met to oppose a county plan to build a new $200-million youth prison.

Interestingly, the story broke right after Craig was in L.A. meeting youth organizations, including the team from the Challenger Memorial Youth Centre -- a detention facility for young people in Los Angeles, California.

At Challenger, educators are using our organization's service learning curriculum to teach empathy and community engagement to young offenders involved with L.A.'s notorious street gangs. Leslie Zoroya, Challenger's lead educator, told us that that simply learning about, and getting involved in, local and global issues is already making many of her young charges rethink their life choices.

Seattle's initiative and the L.A. experience make us question if prison is the best option for dealing with young offenders.

In juvenile detention facilities, youth are disconnected from community and family, with mostly other offenders as role models. This only reinforces negative behaviours and attitudes, according to juvenile justice experts.

"Research shows the earlier and longer youth spend in the system, the worse the outcomes are," says Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland who has studied juvenile justice measures around the world for more than 20 years.

It costs approximately $100,000 a year to incarcerate one young person in Canada. If that individual becomes a hardened life-long criminal, the amount will exceed a staggering $2 million, according to a Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada presentation to a House of Commons committee.

That's why it's important to consider alternatives to jail.

There's restorative justice, where offenders face their victims in a mediated setting outside the courts and agree on restitution. This approach results in surprisingly high levels of satisfaction for victims. New Zealand, a pioneer in restorative justice, has been using it extensively since 1989 as an alternative to putting youth in prison, according to Leone.

"Diversion programs" are another option. They give police, prosecutors and judges the flexibility to waive charges if a young offender accepts help such as drug rehabilitation or mental health treatment.

Councillor O'Brien told us about a Seattle effort targeting adult homeless drug addicts and sex trade workers that provides housing and 24-hour support services instead of prison sentences. The program has reduced recidivism by 60 per cent and may become part of Seattle's zero-incarceration strategy for young people.

Denmark maintains only about 10 youth prison spaces for the entire country, and they are reserved for serious violent crimes, Leone tells us. Other young offenders go into social programs.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (a justice reform organization) told us that in the early 1970s, the state of Massachusetts successfully shut down all its youth prisons and transferred offenders to community facilities like group homes. It has maintained that approach ever since.

In Canada, the number of young people in juvenile detention has decreased dramatically since the Youth Criminal Justice Act was passed in 2003, forcing judges to consider alternatives to prison like community service, says Pate. And our country has a growing network of local restorative justice programs.

These approaches are investments in young people that have an economic and social ripple effect, achieving lower rates of youth crime and recidivism.

There will always be a handful of young offenders who commit crimes dire enough to warrant prison. Zoroya admitted there are some youth at Challenger who she believes are just too "ingrained" to ever turn their lives around.

But we share Leone's optimism that, with innovation solutions that tackle root problems instead of aiming to throw away the key, the overwhelming majority of young offenders never need see the inside of a jail.

If Seattle can dream of a world without youth prisons, why can't Canada?

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.


School-to-Prison Pipeline
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