Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ex-Delinquents Seek Rethink of Jail ; Youth-Offenders-Turned-Activists Fight City Hall over Juvenile Jail Expansions

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ex-Delinquents Seek Rethink of Jail ; Youth-Offenders-Turned-Activists Fight City Hall over Juvenile Jail Expansions

Article excerpt

Elaine Angel Matos spent much of her adolescence drugged up on the streets and in and out of juvenile detention, so she knew she'd have to testify one day.

She just never expected it would be as an invited guest at City Hall.

But here she sits composed, articulate, her long, thin braids gathered in a ponytail, explaining to members of the city council why it doesn't make sense, from her perspective, to build more jails for juvenile offenders.

"By building 200 more beds, it's going to create more kids who feel like they don't have any options. I know I didn't," says the now 22-year-old college student. "Giving alternatives to incarceration - educational programs, after-school programs - that's how you give them back control of their lives."

Ms. Matos is part of a growing grass-roots movement of former youth offenders who are determined to change the way America deals with its troubled teens. From New York to Chicago to San Francisco, they're rallying other young people to fight construction of new juvenile jails and to spending the money instead onprograms creating opportunities in education, drug treatment, and alternatives to incarceration.

They're fueled in part by the high rates of incarceration of young people. Ten years ago, Justice Department figures show, 250 teens were incarcerated per 100,000 nationwide. Today, that's increased to more than 350 per 100,000. Even though the serious juvenile crime rate dropped 36 percent during thhe decade.

Now, groups of former young offenders are organizing rallies, testifying at state legislatures, and lobbying corrections boards to take stock of the impact the incarceration rate has on the nation's youth and future.

"I think it has the potential to become the next real civil rights movement in this country," says Bart Lubow, senior associate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives.

In New York, Matos is part of a coalition called "No More Youth Jails" that is fighting the city's proposal to spend $65 million to expand two juvenile detention facilities. At a hearing of the City Council's Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice last month, more than two- dozen young people came to testify. Like Matos, they noted that the juvenile crime rate in New York City dropped 30 percent from 1993 to 2000. Serious juvenile crime was down more than 28 percent. During that same time, the number of juveniles in detention jumped 60 percent, from 237 to 379.

Those trends are reflected across the country. For some criminal- justice experts, the higher incarceration rates are responsible for curbing juvenile crime, but others see them as a sign of a system out of balance.

The youth crime rate peaked in 1992, says Dan Macallair, vice president of San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Policies put in place in response to that crime spike, he says, are still being implemented because the funding exists. Two things, he contends, are happening as a result. Large, newly built juvenile detention facilities stand half-empty, like Pennsylvania's $71 million state prison at Pine Grove. Designed to house 500 violent juvenile offenders, it now houses less than 200. …

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