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Bart Lubow: Youth Prisons are places of violence, of arbitrary exercise of
power, and are fundamentally dehumanizing

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PAUL JA,Y SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. We’re continuing our discussion with Bart Lubow. He is the head of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore. Thanks for talking to us again.


JAY: So if you watch television shows like Law and Order, you know, a youth–a young person’s arrested, and in runs social services and in runs the public defender. And they’re–you know, you get a sense from the media in general that things are mostly okay and that the concerns of youth are kind of taken care of. So is that a true picture of youth justice in America?

LUBOW: Hardly, especially when it comes to detention and corrections facilities, which have a century-long history of scandal and abuse throughout this country, which are horribly expensive to operate, certainly relative to what it might cost to provide other sorts of remedial supports to kids who are behaviorally challenged, and in terms of the results that they produce, most notably recidivism results, which are pathetic. A recent study completed in New York State that tracked graduates of the state’s youth corrections system found that of the males, 85 percent were rearrested within–I think it was five years of their release.

JAY: Part of the underlying assumption of all of this is that you’re going to teach youth a lesson by sending them to detention, and they’re going to see how tough it is. What is that? Tough love. And they’re going to come out reformed.

LUBOW: Well, the tough love stuff was never really part of the youth corrections industry. It embraced much more a rehabilitative ethic. It always fell really short in terms of implementing that ethic, so that as we created a separate juvenile justice system because we recognize that kids were different than adults, and we wanted to separate them and supposedly give the kids another chance by emphasizing education and skills, social development, and the like, the truth is, those facilities, as all correctional facilities seem to become, were, you know, places of violence, places of arbitrary exercise of power, and places that were fundamentally dehumanizing. And it hasn’t changed in the past century. A federally sponsored research project a year and a half ago revealed that 12 percent of kids in youth corrections facilities reported being sexually abused while confined. So we couldn’t–we can’t keep kids minimally safe in these facilities, yet we continue to put them in them.

JAY: How much is privatization a factor? I mean, do we know what extent the prison’s youth facilities are privatized? We know the famous case of this judge–was it in Pennsylvania? I can’t remember. The judge who was getting actually–

LUBOW: Yeah, Luzerne County.

JAY: –yeah–getting kickbacks to send kids to a private detention center, ’cause they were making money the more kids they had in the detention center. I mean, how much is that a factor across the country and in this area?

LUBOW: There are two things to be said about privatization. One, I think it’s really, really questionable to make liberty a function of market forces, and when you allow for privatization, you essentially do that. The only way that a private corrections company is going to make more money is by expanding its market share. And that means it will promote policies designed to put more of our fellow citizens in cages. Second thing is the evidence from the early years of privatization–and that’s what we’re in, the early years–does not speak well of the private corrections industry in terms of providing safe and healthy environments for our kids.

JAY: Let’s talk a bit more about the Baltimore area. What are the detention facilities like here? There was recently a big debate whether to open up a new youth prison or not. Part of the problem is a certain number of the youth wind up in adult detention rather than youth detention–they said because of the number of available beds. So what’s the picture here, and what’s happening?

LUBOW: Well, the controversy in Baltimore regarding a new youth jail was really focused on a very small group of cases in which youngsters younger than 18 are being prosecuted as adults. Those kids are–as a matter of policy, not a matter of law–held in a section of the adult jail. That section is an old, decrepit one that is–really doesn’t have the right physical structure for providing the kinds of services that the law does require, like good educational services. So that’s the worst of youth detention for Baltimore City kids. Baltimore has a brand-new juvenile detention center located not far from the jail. It was opened about a half-dozen years ago. Physically, it’s a new building. On the other hand, it was poorly designed. It was not designed with the right amount of square footage. It was–I mean, even basic things like how wide the hallways are were–mistakes were made about, so that millions of dollars, literally, was spent on building this new facility, and from the moment it opened there were problems with it. And it’s been a dangerous place that–so dangerous that the US Department of Justice came in to investigate it, and the state was forced to enter into a remedial agreement with the feds to get the place up to snuff.

JAY: What’s the sort of, if there is any, philosophical underlying assumptions behind authorities that think this is okay? I mean, you’ve got–unless they’ve just written these kids off and assume they’re going to end up in adult prison, and they kind of hold on to them until they’re old enough to lock them up for a longer period, I mean, is that the idea, that they’re just writing these kids off?

LUBOW: I think for many years detention and incarceration for kids was part of a rehabilitative ethic. That was a nice ambition which was virtually never realized in any youth corrections system that I’m aware of in this country, perhaps with the exception of Missouri. So if you commit a serious crime, you’re going to be held accountable, and accountability means you’re going to do some time in confinement. But again, if you look at who’s confined in our country, we’re confining kids for things that we would never confine adults for.

JAY: For example?

LUBOW: Well, for status offenses, or for violations of court orders related to status offenses, or for probation violations–essentially for defiance, for not heeding the instructions or directives of adults who have authority over them. And when we do that, you know, if a judge wags his finger at you, the truant, and says, Paul, you’re going to go to school or I’m going to lock you up, and then you don’t go to school because no one has addressed whatever is underlying your truancy, that judge is going to have to lock you up.

JAY: We explored this a bit in one of our other interviews, but how much has this got to do, especially in a city like Baltimore, but many–most big American cities, I guess, the kind of racist cultural assumption that these kids aren’t capable of anything else, that, you know, we can’t do anything about all this urban poverty anyway, you’ve got to deal with the outcome of these violent kids, and so, you know, all we can do is warehouse them?

LUBOW: Well, I think there’s a lot of that. I think, for example, many well-intended people who work in the juvenile justice system tend to think the families are the problems. They pathologize the family, and they think that removing the child from the family context, whether it’s putting them in a youth corrections facility, putting them in a so-called therapeutic center, is a good thing for the kid, because the family is the problem. If you are a juvenile justice system committed to helping kids become productive adults and you think the family is the primary problem that’s affecting this kid’s socialization, why is it that you’ve built a juvenile justice system that only focuses on 15- and 16-year-olds and not on strengthening their families? It absolutely makes no sense. And it’s one of the great mysteries of juvenile justice in America is that it’s all organized around episodic interventions with 15-year-olds, as opposed to working with moms and dads and saying, what can we do that will help you fulfill your responsibility as the primary socialization force in your kids’ life.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Mr. Lubow worked for the New York City Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division and as director of Special Defender Services for Legal Aid, where he developed interventions and strategies to enhance representation in criminal cases. Mr. Lubow was named director of Alternatives to Incarceration for New York State and, during his tenure, 175 new programs were established, intervening in the cases of more than 50,000 defendants annually.

Mr. Lubow is director of the Program for High-Risk Youth at Annie E. Casey Foundation where he is responsible for the Foundation’s juvenile justice reform portfolio and works on a variety of projects and initiatives relevant to improving the odds that seriously disadvantaged youth will make successful transitions to adulthood.
Mr. Lubow received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cornell University. He serves on a number of local and national boards, including the Maryland Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, the Institute for Community Peace and the Community Justice Network for Youth. He has published multiple articles on justice system reforms.