The Need For FLY & Results

The Need for FLY

According to the U.N., the U.S. has the highest imprisonment rate of children in the world: nearly 2,000 of them are arrested every day. And according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an estimated 76,000 of our imprisoned children are prosecuted, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year.

At 165 per 100,000, California’s rate of incarceration is nearly three times the average U.S. rate found by the U.N. Our state incarcerates more young people than any other. 

The Economic and Human Costs of Youth Incarceration

When Governor Newsom proposed closing the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, juvenile detention and probation programs were costing about $200 million each year, with about $300,000 spent on each incarcerated youth in 2019. As Newsom said, “That’s not the annual tuition at Harvard; that’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford combined. It’s ludicrous. 

Juvenile incarceration also comes at an enormous human cost in terms of the harm it does to children’s healthy development and socialization. For example, because many youth in juvenile facilities receive inadequate educational instruction, and are often denied services they might need for learning differences or other challenges, juvenile incarceration can decrease the chances of high school graduation by up to 39%. The poverty rate for dropouts is more than twice as high as for college grads, and high school dropouts are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates.

Incarceration also puts children at risk of physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, and suicide. And when they are subject to solitary confinement, they are deprived of  social interaction, mental stimulation, and services during a critical period of their adolescence.  

Lastly, a stint in juvenile hall makes it much more likely a young person will end up in adult prison and begin a cycle of incarceration that they cannot break. A few years ago, studies estimated the average cost to society of each high-risk 14-year-old entering into a life of crime to be between $1.7 million and $3.3 million, which takes a significant toll on communities.

Incarceration Decreases While Injustice Increases

While the number of youth incarcerated has fallen in recent decades, in California, the proportion of arrested juveniles subjected to court action has actually increased. The largest increases in formal charging petitions in the juvenile courts are not for serious and violent felonies, but for the least serious.

In fact, across the U.S. thousands of youth are still confined before they are actually found “delinquent.” Because of this, many believe that most youth in the system could be released without significant risk to public safety.

Before COVID-19, the incarceration of children and youth was already gaining recognition as a major public health issue. Then the rapid spread of the disease to both youth and staff in locked juvenile facilities, and the inadequate early response from authorities, helped underscore the public health dangers of incarceration. 

Further, a study by the The Sentencing Project completed six months into the pandemic concluded that: “Drops in admissions during the pandemic, alongside decisions to release youth at a higher rate than during ordinary times, buttress the long-standing case that youth incarceration is largely unnecessary.”

These facts underscore the fact that the systemic issues that plague the adult criminal justice system are still “mirrored in the juvenile system: racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization.”

The Fundamental Role of Racism and Discrimination

Historically, the overwhelming majority of young people involved in the juvenile justice system have been youth of color. Youth of color are far more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, fail probation, and be confined to adult jails and prisons than their white peers. We believe this is because the racism embedded in our society is mirrored—or even magnified—in the juvenile justice system.

And although youth incarceration rates have decreased as explained above, disparities were growing. They have intensified even further during the pandemic. A recent essay from the Marshall Project stated,Many juvenile jails are now almost entirely filled with young people of color…White youths were being released from juvenile detention centers at a far higher rate than their Black peers during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and young people of color have since been detained for longer than they were before the crisis.” And, “…while the number of White youths has remained historically low, the number of Black and Latino youths has risen slightly.”

Other groups of youth have also always been significantly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. For example, the proportion of girls being arrested continues to increase. In particular, African American girls are the fastest-growing portion of the juvenile justice population. Both of these trends mirror changes in the criminal justice system for adult women. 

At least 1 in 3 youth in the juvenile justice system has a disability qualifying them for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—nearly four times the rate of youth in public schools. Less than half receive special education services while in custody.

The percent of LGBQ, gender-nonconforming, and trans children in the system is more than two times larger than in the general population; 85% are children of color. Youth who are undocumented or have vulnerable immigration status are also significantly overrepresented.

Discrimination is also evident in school disciplinary policies that push these same populations of youth out into the juvenile justice system instead of offering the support and services they need. So the marginalized groups of youth mentioned above make up the far majority of those trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.

The persistent racism and discrimination within the juvenile justice system, and in the other systems that make up the pipeline that funnels youth into juvenile facilities and adult prisons, cannot be reversed or fixed in a piecemeal approach. Decarceration and community-based alternatives must be our starting point, not an add-on to an already broken system. 

Replace Incarceration

In our communities and our society at large, it’s time to imagine new possibilities for children and youth involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. We have many better choices than incarceration to promote public health and safety, and to ensure all our kids have the opportunity to grow into healthy, free, and productive adults. These include diversion, treatment, after school programs, and family supports, all of which provide children with critical services, keep communities safe, and save taxpayer dollars.

Therefore, we support reducing and eventually eliminating juvenile incarceration, transitioning instead to a community-based system of care aimed at wrapping support around youth using a strengths-based approach like the approach we employ at FLY.

FLY’s Solution and Results

At FLY, we are dedicated to interrupting the pipeline to prison for youth and supporting them on their path to healthy, free, and productive lives. Our programs connect young people with positive mentors and role models, promote their understanding of the law and their rights, and support them to become leaders among their peers and in their communities. 

FLY serves approximately 2,000 youth ages 11 to 25 annually in locked facilities, in schools, and in community settings across Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda Counties. They are overwhelmingly youth of color, and FLY has a strong commitment to racial equity in our systems and communities.

Each year, FLY’s young people make significant gains in reducing system involvement, attaining their educational goals, and developing the critical life skills and confidence they need to make changes in their lives. Read FLY’s Annual Report for data about the most recent fiscal year.

Together with our young people, we also help our juvenile justice systems become more just, humane, and equitable. As a result, FLY increases safety in our communities and decreases the costs and consequences of crime. 

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