Closing Massachusetts Training Schools: Reflections 40 Years Later is a monograph issued in the past month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), and chronicles the stories that came out of a December 2011 symposium hosted by the Foundation and Youth Advocacy Programs (YAP), Inc. I was privileged to attend the symposium along with leading juvenile justice experts, practitioners and advocates from around the country.

We were convened by AECF and YAP to reflect on a historic reform campaign — the closure of Massachusetts’ network of juvenile “reform schools” in the early 1970s — and to consider what that experience means for today’s reform efforts. The symposium was organized to review what the Massachusetts experience could teach us about the historic moment that currently exists, as we see efforts in the juvenile justice field to build new systems grounded in evidence and youth development principles to take advantage of falling youth incarceration rates and facilities closures.                                                                                   

So much of what is in Closing Massachusetts Training Schools resonates with our experience at DYRS as we were attempting similar reforms. Like Massachusetts, our efforts to close dangerous and ineffective facilities were unprecedented in DC, highly controversial, and faced significant opposition. And in both cases, a constituency was built among elected officials, advocates, community leaders, and the young people and families impacted by the system to reduce reliance on secure custody, serve more youth at-home, and build a broader continuum of work, school, treatment, recreation and services for youth in the neighborhoods they are from.  

Also out this month is a new book by author Nell Bernstein,  “Burning Down the House: The End of the Juvenile Training School.” As Tavis Smiley noted in his interview with Bernstein, one in three young people will be arrested by age 23 (and most young people engage in some behavior that would be determined to be illegal that never comes to the attention of law enforcement). Too many also experience the abusive, costly and counterproductive institutions to which we often send youth in what is too often a misguided attempt to “treat” otherwise normative adolescent behaviors. By telling the stories of confined youth directly through their voices, Bernstein provides a key tool for anyone working to build a constituency to reform juvenile justice systems: When the average person hears from young people and their families most impacted by incarceration, they are more likely to be open to policies that rely less on incarcerating youth, and even to becoming engaged on these issues.

I would encourage you to take the time to review  Closing Massachusetts Training Schools: Reflections 40 Years Later, and Burning Down the House: The End of the Juvenile Training School. Both works will be discussed at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative Inter-Site Conference, where 800 juvenile justice leaders from around the country will be meeting this week to talk about many of the ideas discussed in these two new publications, and the hard work we all have to do to build the kinds of fair and effective juvenile justice systems our young people and our communities deserve.  

Marc A. Schindler, Executive Director