After struggling for years to treat young criminals in razor wire-ringed institutions, states across the country are quietly shuttering dozens of reformatories amid plunging juvenile arrests, softer treatment policies and bleak budgets.
In Ohio, the number of juvenile offenders has plummeted by nearly half over the last two years, pushing the state to close three facilities. California's closures include a youth institution near Los Angeles that operated for nearly 115 years. And one in Texas will finally go quiet after getting its start as a World War II-era training base.
The closures have juvenile advocates cheering.
"I can tell you it's the best thing they can do," said Aaron Kupchik, a University of Delaware criminologist. "Incarceration does nobody any good. You're taking away most of their chance for normal development."
Several factors have pushed states to close facilities. In stark contrast to the growing adult prison population, the number of juveniles in state lockups has dropped dramatically, partly because there are fewer juvenile arrests and more offenders in county-based treatment programs. States grappling with busted budgets can't afford to operate facilities with so many empty beds.
State reformatories are typically reserved for serious criminals, such as sex offenders and other violent offenders. Unlike the punishment-oriented adult system, juvenile justice focuses on rehabilitation.
During the early 1990s, though, tough-on-crime legislators turned to the juvenile system. Nearly every state lowered the minimum age for kids to be tried as adults or increased the kind of crimes that land kids in the adult system.
But juvenile arrest rates dropped, falling 33 percent between 1997 and 2008, according to the latest U.S. Justice Department data.
Criminologists aren't sure why fewer kids are getting in trouble. Some believe more kids are avoiding drug trafficking. Others think programs such as group homes, halfway houses and after-school tutoring closer to kids' homes have reduced recidivism.
"No fancy stats suggest this is a cure-all, but what I think you do see is the accumulation of those small results of people doing this increasingly in cities and towns all across the country," said Elliot Currie, a University of California-Irvine criminologist.
Those reforms have gained momentum as studies found teens sent to adult court often got in worse trouble after they were released and lawsuits emerged over poor conditions at state lockups. Many states have tweaked their juvenile polices so only the most serious offenders land in their systems.
"We're locking up the right kids," said Bart Lubow, program director for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps fund such juvenile offender programs. "It's about making smarter decisions."
As a result, the number of juveniles in state institutions has dropped. According to the Justice Department, the number of juvenile offenders declined 26 percent between 2000 and 2008, from about 109,000 to 80,000.
All the empty beds offer states struggling with budget deficits a way to save money — downsize juvenile justice systems.
The number of kids in state residential custody in California peaked at 10,000 in 1996 but now stands at 1,500, said state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa. The state has closed six institutions since 2003, most notably the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility, which had operated just outside Los Angeles since 1890. State officials keep the institution clean for film crews; the paranormal research television series "The Othersiders" investigated reports of bangs and voices there in an episode last year.
The closings have generated as much as $40 million in savings for the state's juvenile justice department through job reductions, Sessa said.
In Texas, the state's residential juvenile population has dropped from 5,000 kids in 2007 to about 1,900 this spring, said Texas Youth Commission spokesman Jim Hurley. His state has closed three facilities since 2007 and plans to close two more. Hurley said it was unclear how much money that saved.
In Ohio, the state's residential youth population has fallen from about 1,730 kids as of mid-2008 to about 950 today. Its three closures over the last year should save about $40 million annually, according to juvenile corrections officials.
Some of the closed reformatories around the country will become adult prisons. Others are up for sale, like the one in Kansas that closed in 2008 saving the state $3.7 million.
In Wisconsin, state corrections officials are considering closing the Ethan Allen School, a former tuberculosis sanitarium near Wales, about 25 miles west of Milwaukee. The school's population has dropped from 460 in 1998 to 195 in May.
Since counties generally pay the state to house juvenile offenders from their area, the overall decrease in Wisconsin's jailed juvenile population has created a $25 million budget shortfall. Ethan Allen officials worry about what will happen if it closes, but they're trying to stay focused on their kids.
It was life as usual on a recent spring day at Ethan Allen. Sunshine sparkled on the concertina wire that topped the fence surrounding the sprawling campus.
In one class, social worker Melinda Aiken discussed emotion management.
"Why does it take courage to make a positive change?" Aiken asked.
"If you're scared," a boy replied, "you ain't never going to get anywhere."
"It's going to take a lot of strength," she said. "You guys can do it. Tap into that."
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