Commentary

I survived the devastating impact of youth incarceration. It’s time for Pa. to end it | Opinion

Building a Pa. free of youth incarceration makes communities stronger, improves outcomes for young people

By Alex Rivera

Recent news out of Texas and Tennessee has brought to light the horrors of youth incarceration. Many express shock and disbelief at the abuse and trauma faced by young people behind bars. As heartbreaking as each story is, it comes as no surprise to me — I was incarcerated as a child myself.

Pennsylvania has seen some of the worst instances of abuse and mistreatment of incarcerated youth. From Kids for Cash and Glen Mills to Wordsworth, Devereaux, and Lima Detention Center — it could not be clearer that this system is harmful to young people. As the legislative session comes to a close early next year, now is the time to take bold, transformative action to protect and support our youth.

Youth incarceration takes children away from their communities and support systems and locks them in cages. In Pennsylvania, children as young as 10 can be placed behind bars to face unimaginable trauma, including isolation, lack of mental health services and the threat of violence and abuse.

When I was incarcerated at a young age, I remember worrying about the children even younger than me. Who would be there to protect them? As a child, your brain is still developing — you don’t even understand what’s happening to you.

My childhood was taken away from me when I was behind bars. I should have been focusing on learning in school and meeting new friends, but instead I lived every day fearful of the next.

Even as I’m now out of the system, I continue to carry the trauma of being incarcerated as a child, and it has altered my life for the worst. Being incarcerated set my education back and has made it so much harder to find jobs and live a normal life. I think about how this could have all been avoided if I were given a chance rather than separated from everyone I love and placed behind bars.

Incremental changes are not the solution to a system that is inherently abusive. Incremental reforms will not change the fact that in Pennsylvania, Black youth are seven times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated. They will not change that Pennsylvania spends $211,000 to incarcerate a child compared to the $16,000 on average we spend to educate a child.  Why do we continue to invest in a racist, costly system that only harms our young people? Incarcerating us does not make communities safer; it frequently does the opposite.

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Alternatively, community-based supports such as mental health and educational programming cost taxpayers far less and have been found to be more effective than youth incarceration in reducing recidivism. Our first response should not be to send away and imprison young people — it should be to support them and provide them with the resources they need. One mistake should not determine a child’s future. We are so much more than our mistakes.

If legislators are serious about investing in and supporting young people, they need to divest from the carceral system for youth and instead fund community-based supports. Empty promises do nothing to address the urgency of this moment — we need policy change.

The recommendations from the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force address some urgently needed changes, such as repealing Pennsylvania’s direct file laws and eliminating most fines and fees, but they do not go nearly far enough.

We need legislators to take bold, immediate action to end the harmful practice of youth incarceration by adopting Care, Not Control’s demands, which include ending the carceral state for youth in Pennsylvania, divesting from youth incarceration and reinvesting in communities, and providing holistic support to young people as they await release.

Building a Pennsylvania free of youth incarceration would make communities stronger and improve outcomes for young people. We know a world without youth incarceration is possible.

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Small reforms, although they may address some critical and long overdue changes, will not end the abuse and trauma of youth incarceration. Pennsylvania’s legislators, the power is in your hands. We need you to take action and adopt our demands.

I am speaking up because I don’t want any more young people to experience what I went through. I think of how different our lives could be if we were met with support rather than cruelty.

Rather than being known for having some of the worst instances of abuse in the youth incarceration system, legislators have the opportunity to make historic change in Pennsylvania by ending the carceral state for youth and treating children as children.

Alex Rivera is a youth leader for the #CareNotControl campaign. She writes from Philadelphia. 

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