Closing Youth Prisons and Ending Extreme Sentences for Children

Closing Youth Prisons & Ending Extreme Sentences for Children


On any given day, the United States incarcerates 50,000 youth within the juvenile justice system. A disproportionate share of these youth are children of color.

The Story

Our nation also continues to impose extreme sentences—including life sentences without the possibility of parole—for crimes committed by young people. Sensing an opportunity within reach, a number of EA member foundations have galvanized around the notion of closing all youth prisons in the country, ending harsh sentences, and replacing them with alternatives that work for children and their families.

As research on youth brain development advances and as standards of care and decency evolve, America has begun to rethink punishment for children. Waves of reforms to juvenile prisons have led to some improvements, as well as a reduction in the number of youth in secure detention. However, change is not happening fast enough. Racial disparities disproportionately affecting youth of color continue to rise. Meanwhile states spend outsized amounts of money to keep open facilities that are housing fewer youth each year.

The only way to eliminate the racial disparities and redirect resources away from punitive measures and toward positive alternatives is to shut down youth prisons, once and for all. There is a growing movement across the United States to do so. Several foundations have decided to support Youth First, a national network of state-level advocacy campaigns to close juvenile prisons and invest in programs for youth and community-based alternatives to incarceration. 

Youth First focuses on ending youth incarceration.  Although created independent of the EA, most of Youth First’s funders are EA members. These include the Andrus Family Fund, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, and the Butler Family Fund.

Some of these same foundations have also supported efforts to limit extreme sentences for youth in the adult system, including juvenile life without parole, (JLWOP).

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January of 2016 that a constitutional ban on mandatory JLWOP sentences should be applied retroactively, EA members stepped up to help advocates leverage the court’s ruling. “There was this feeling that we were in a momentous occasion for change, but we knew that we lacked the resources to do that effectively, ” described Joanna Visser Adjoian, co-director of the Philadelphia-based Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP). Adjoian’s home state, Pennsylvania, holds 25 percent of the people serving mandatory JLWOP sentences. 

The release of people serving JLWOP sentences is not immediate or automatic. The Supreme Court decision mandated individual resentencing hearings or parole for each impacted individual, including 500 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania—a group that is disproportionately composed of Black men due to sentencing bias. Louisiana and Michigan have the next highest populations, each with similar demographics. Together, the three states incarcerate over 1,100 people serving JLWOP sentences.

After connecting at a meeting hosted by EA member foundation Andrus Family Fund, conference calls were convened by EA staff and two EA members—Open Society Foundations (OSF) and the Butler Family Fund— to get foundations on board and to afford advocacy organizations like YSRP and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC) the opportunity to outline programming and funding needs for the three most-impacted jurisdictions. Together, several EA national funders (Andrus, Butler, OSF, Public Welfare Foundation, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation) quickly channeled over $1 million into the resulting joint proposal, financing litigation support, data collection, training, and mitigation processes in the three most-impacted states.

The issues facing incarcerated youth are deeply relevant to the EA’s strategy of shifting the narratives about boys and men of color. This work has the power to influence Americans’ beliefs about who is worthy of our empathy, and whether youth of color have an opportunity to have a childhood at all.