Nationwide, states are reexamining their use of youth prisons to “treat” juvenile offenders. A mounting body of evidence shows that correctional models are costly and ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst, when it comes to reducing recidivism and producing positive outcomes for juveniles.
Nebraska operates two large-scale “deep end” facilities for youth in the juvenile justice system: the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs) at Geneva, for young women, and Kearney, for young men. Three years ago, Voices for Children released a report calling for the complete transformation or closure of the YRTCs. Today, we offer an update that shows both the progress the YRTCs have made, and the troubling challenges they still present to juvenile justice reform in our state.
Though populations have decreased and some evidence-based programming has been implemented, we remain concerned about the disproportionate number of youth of color being sent to the YRTCs, the continued use of correctional measures like extended solitary confinement, and the lack of systemic evidence to demonstrate long-term success or failure.
The ultimate question is whether the YRTCs are a sound investment for Nebraska’s youth. We spend more than $18 million per fiscal year on these two facilities, without meaningful data showing they are making youth and communities safer in the long run. Meanwhile, decades ago Missouri revamped their juvenile training homes into a network of small facilities with thirty beds or less and a completely therapeutic, wraparound model of treatment. The state has seen its juvenile recidivism rate plummet, and its educational success rate for this population skyrocket. They do this for $10 more per day than Nebraska spends on a young man at Kearney, and $60 less per day than we spend on a young woman at Geneva.
At Voices, we applaud the steps already taken by the YRTCs to improve their programs for the children in their care, and are happy to produce a report highlighting many positive changes. We have no doubt of the commitment and heart YRTC management and staff have for the children sent to them. However, as a state, we need to ask ourselves whether the model is producing the outcomes we hope to see, or if the time for change has come.
 See, e.g., Maltreatment of Youth in Juvenile Corrections Facilities. Annie E. Casey Foundation: Baltimore, 2015. Available online here: http://www.aecf.org/resources/maltreatment-of-youth-in-us-juvenile-corrections-facilities/