Photo: David McNew (Getty Images)

Last week, in the wake of intensive community advocacy, litigation and media scrutiny, the state of Wisconsin agreed to shut down two large youth prisons and reform its treatment of incarcerated youth. This is the perfect moment to ask—what should real justice for youth look like, and how do we get there?

The answer is rooted in our experiences as a community organizer and a youth rights attorney with a shared understanding that our justice system is shaped by historical and persistent structural racism.

Like most youth prisons in the United States, Wisconsin’s youth prisons disproportionately house youth of color, primarily African American. Most come from Milwaukee and surrounding counties. The facilities—Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls—are more than 200 miles away in a largely white, rural area. Staff, hired from the local community, is more than 95 percent white.

The youth prison model separates young people from their families and communities and exposes them to harsh, and often abusive, conditions. Until now, facility staff at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake relied heavily on solitary confinement, pepper spray, strip searches, restraints, and even physical abuse to impose “control” in the facilities. As one young person explained, they “treat us like dogs, in cages, causing us more trauma.” Youth faced this treatment even for minor infractions: solitary confinement for stealing a muffin or some candy from the shelf; pepper spray for holding their hands out through the slot in their cell doors; strip searches even when staff lacked any reason to believe the youth had contraband.

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Poor treatment of youth of color in the justice system–and in particular, exposure to family separation and abuse–didn’t arise in a vacuum. As James Bell explains in Repairing the Breach: A Brief History of Youth of Color in the Juvenile Justice System (pdf), in the years after the Civil War, the evolution from slavery to black codes and convict leasing essentially criminalized freedom for African Americans, including black youth. The development of the juvenile justice system also reflected and reinforced racial inequities. In the early 1800s, “houses of refuge,” the country’s earliest juvenile facilities, created rehabilitative opportunities for white children and—at least at first—excluded African-American youth.

By the 1830s, these institutions created segregated housing for African-American youth, who faced longer sentences, harsher treatment, and a higher death rate than their white counterparts. During this same era, Native-American youth were pulled from their homes and placed in boarding schools. Mexican-American youth were labeled “feeble-minded” and deprived of educational opportunities. As reformers introduced new elements into the juvenile justice system, youth of color continued to face disparate treatment at the hands of the state: less access to probation and home-based services, greater court involvement, more contact with the adult criminal justice system.

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Even now, across the country, the Sentencing Project has documented that youth of color face arrest, prosecution, and placement in facilities at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts who engage in similar behavior. Intentionally or not, the justice system perpetuates a cycle of family separation and trauma rooted in the history of our country.

If the problem is grounded in centuries of institutionalized racism and a legal structure that forces youth of color out into the justice system and pulls them from their families and communities, our solution needs to be multifaceted. We must stop the immediate abuses, bring resources back to communities to provide positive supports for youth, and decriminalize normative adolescent behavior for young people of color.

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As a starting point, we need to put an end to the traumatic conditions of confinement. What happens in juvenile facilities too often remains hidden from public view. Litigation to address unconstitutional conditions of confinement – especially when combined with media attention – can be vital to shining a light on the problems and preventing the worst of the abuses. The litigation brought by Juvenile Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, with support from the law firm Quarles and Brady, played a key role in limiting solitary confinement, pepper spray, strip searches and restraints at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. It also publicly revealed an understaffed, beleaguered and unsafe facility. But litigation must be a starting point, not the end-game.

Comprehensive reform must also center the voices of youth, families and their communities. In Wisconsin, Youth Justice Milwaukee and other community members have long been calling for solutions that are community-based and restorative—not replications of failed prison models. Research confirms what community members know: programs that support youth in their homes and build on the strengths of youth, their families, their schools and their communities are more effective than incarceration at improving public safety and helping youth develop lifelong problem-solving skills. These approaches can also shift resources from building and staffing jails to supporting local efforts to serve our own youth. Ultimately, this will be accomplished not only by closing youth prisons, but also by policy reforms that ensure that youth of color, like their white counterparts, are permitted to engage in normal adolescent behavior, and that they receive interventions—not incarceration—when they act out.

As Wisconsin and other states begin closing large youth prisons, let’s hope they seize the moment and create the real transformation all our youth deserve.

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Sharlen Moore has committed her life to building and sustaining grassroots leadership for change. She has a passion for community justice, which led to her co-founding Urban Underground in 2000; she is also a founding member of Youth Justice Milwaukee, where she serves as Director. YJM is a broad-based youth decarceration campaign advocating for the creation of community-based, family-centered, restorative programs as an alternative to locking up young people in Wisconsin prisons.

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Jessica Feierman is the Associate Director of Juvenile Law Center. She has co-authored numerous appellate and amicus briefs in federal courts. She also engages in litigation to end abusive treatment of youth in juvenile facilities, including in the groundbreaking Wisconsin case JJ v. Litscher, a class action civil rights lawsuit. Jessica’s deep interest in collaboration with community and youth activists led her to launch Juveniles for Justice, a program that supports justice system-involved youth in becoming advocates for change.