KATE CAMMELL: On any given day in the US, nearly 60,000 youth under the age of 18 are incarcerated in both jails and prisons. As COVID-19 continues to spread through the criminal justice system, advocates are calling for the release of more minors in detention. To learn more about the particular challenges COVID-19 poses for incarcerated youth, my fellow intern at PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, Liz Fiore, called up one of the strongest leading advocates in the juvenile justice field. SCHIRALDI.

Vincent is currently a senior research scientist at Columbia School of Social Work, and director of the Columbia Justice Lab. His history in the field is expansive and impressive. Vincent founded the Policy Think Tank,  the Justice Policy Institute, and even worked in government as director of the Juvenile Corrections in Washington D.C. And then as commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, where he pioneered efforts to community-based alternatives to incarceration in New York City and Washington D.C. Most recently Schiraldi served as senior advisor to the New York City mayor’s office of criminal justice. All of this history has gained Vincent a national reputation as a fearless reformer. Liz had the opportunity to ask him about America’s youth incarceration problem, and how this pandemic is further exposing it. They also talked about ways to support incarcerated youth by getting involved in advocacy efforts.

My name is Kate Cammell. I’ve been joining you for the last few weeks, but I’m happy to turn the conversation over to Liz bringing her brilliant, thoughtful, and hard work behind the scenes this past month to the forefront.

We’re glad you’re joining us again for Pen America’s new rapid response series: Temperature Check, COVID-19 Behind Bars.

ELIZABETH FIORE: So thanks so much for joining us. I’m joined by Vincent. I’m so glad we could sit down and talk about justice-involved youth. I’m going to start off with some questions and I could imagine as we talk, maybe we’ll get into some side tangents about things we’re really passionate about.I know I’m passionate about youth justice. Having worked in it just for like a year, and it really made me realize how important working with youth is for an overall, holistic view, including like in schools and like, I’m sure you know about the school to prison pipeline and all that, stuff like that.

So I’m really interested in youth, particularly youth justice, and I know you are as well. So I think like a good starting question would be, I know that you were involved in the DOC and working as a director, so then you transitioned into academia. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you started off with your career and where you are now? What led you to where? 

VINCENT SCHIRALDI: Yeah. And I want to just start by dedicating this to a friend and colleague who passed away this week. His name was Paul DeMuro. And in the sixties and seventies, Paul worked with a mentor of mine, Jerry Miller, and they closed every juvenile facility in the state of Massachusetts during about a two year period, sent all the kids home except 60 kids total you know in two 30 bed facilities, were in small facilities. 

So it was really the first kind of major de-institutionalization of juveniles in America. And Paul was a mentor of mine and stuck with me all these years and helped me out when I ran youth corrections myself. So I just want to dedicate this to him. 

I, actually, I started working in a group home when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton State University in upstate New York. And then I heard Jerry Miller, who I just mentioned, speak about closing all youth prisons down in Massachusetts. And, I went to work for Jerry you know, I sort of chased him out of the classroom. I was enthralled by it. This was 1981, probably. And, so I—so that’s the early days, really, of mass incarceration. I think, probably mid to late seventies is when most people say mass incarceration started and grew every year between then and 2009. So, I heard Jerry talk about how he was able to let all the kids out of these institutions and provide them with kind of services and supports. And I said, okay, this is what I want to do.

And so I worked for nonprofits from then from 1981 all the way until  2005. And I never really thought I was going to go into government. But then the Juvenile Justice Agency in Washington, D.C. was under a court order with litigation over terrible, horrible conditions. Staff beating the kids up, sexually assaulting the kids, rats and cockroaches crawling up on the kids at night. Awful, awful, awful, hair-raising stuff. Surprisingly, cause I was a big critic of it, my nonprofit organization Justice Policy Institute, the mayor offered me the job to run the place. And so it’s one of those put your money where your mouth is moments. And I decided to do it.

FIORE:  So you briefly talked about your own nonprofit; do you want to talk a little bit about that and why you started it and what it does today? 

SCHIRALDI: Yeah. I’ve actually started two nonprofits. One is called the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice that’s in San Francisco, and that provided a combination of direct services and advocacy and research. We’d put out these kinds of high impact studies showing racial discrimination in the system, or how much more money we’re spending on prisons than higher education, you know, things like that. And we were also are providing direct services, some of which were funded by the government. So that became a problem because the government was not very happy about criticizing somebody, who it was funding. And so I split off and created the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. And back then it was not easy to get foundation money to do advocacy around criminal justice work.

Nobody was…there wasn’t this groundswell of both advocates and formerly incarcerated people and philanthropy. The pickings were very slim if you wanted to be an advocate only.  And so, you know, that’s fine. You know, that’s what we sign up for in this field. But that’s what the Justice Policy Institute was, and it’s still, both of them are still around, but the Justice Policy Institute never provided any services. Because it wanted to be able to say whatever it wanted to be able to say without worrying this governor, or that corrections administrator was going to enact reprisals. 

FIORE: You also touched on a reason why you got into the DOC is because you were so knowledgeable about the harsh living conditions of prisons and jails. And I think that, especially with everything going on right now with COVID and the spreading that has led to a lot of reforms in terms of like releases of people. How do you think that COVID in particular is affecting youth detentions? Because youth detention is obviously a little bit different than adult prisons. Do you think that there’s like a unique factor in youth detentions and how it’s being affected during COVID? 

SCHIRALDI: Yeah, no, I think it’s, I think it’s a similar nightmare in a lot of ways to the adult system with a couple of variations. But I think they share a lot more than they don’t share. You know, when the pandemic started to become obvious, I got together with a bunch of current and former youth correctional administrators, and we issued a statement saying: reduce the number of people you’re locking up, close the front door, and create a COVID plan. There were many more elements to it than that, but that was basically it. And also provide supports to families when their kids come home. 

And we issued that. And the reason we issued it is because every one of us, the first thing you do if you’ve ever run one of  these places, you start imagining what’s going to happen and here’s the way going to play out, and it is playing out in several places: the virus enters your system somehow, somehow, some way, staff, or a new kid that comes in, family member, through maintenance staff, you know however, and everybody starts to freak out. Staff either start to get sick or call in sick because they’re afraid of getting sick or because one of their family members is sick. And now you’ve got an already thin staffing complement that gets thinner. Programs get closed down cause you don’t want people coming in that might be sick. School gets closed. Visitation gets closed, volunteers get closed. So now, if kids are already in a stressful situation cause they’re already in a juvenile correctional system in America, so let just, every day starts stressful and now you up the stress many fold and you have to make this decision. Do I lock the kids down or do I let them out into a congregate setting where there is no frigging way they’re going to stay six feet away from each other?

 And there’s no way, my staff who already didn’t keep this place hygienic before this are gonna clean it enough. And so that’s the situation that person after person after person finds themselves in. That’s why we kind of issued that statement somewhat early on because what we were trying to say is, you know, the doctor was the head physician at Rikers Island, Dr. MacDonald said, “a storm is coming, we need to get ready for it.” Right. That was his sort of clarion call, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it, and so I got to thinking about storms when they are coming. What do you tell your citizenry? Get out there now. Get the plywood up and the hammer and nails and board up the windows. You don’t say, wait till the wind is blowing at a hundred miles an hour and then get the boards and hammer and nails out. And that’s what we’re trying to say to the juvenile correctional administrators, politicians, governors, mayors, county council: prepare for this now. Bar a bunch of people from coming into the facility and release anybody on a misdemeanor, anybody on a probation violation, anyone that’s got 30, 60, 90 days left to serve on their sentence. Get them the hell out of there. Nothing’s going to happen in the next 90 days in your juvenile correctional facility that is going to change the life of this young person except maybe getting COVID, so get them out of your facility right now in big numbers. Don’t do a bunch of individualized, blah, blah, blah, which is what everybody always wants to do. And then, whoever’s left, do the individualized plan.

Because yes, we get it, some of the kids will be, in your view, too dangerous to release. But not the misdemeanor. It’s not the probation violators, not the kids that failed the program, not the kids that are coming out in 90 days anyway. All of them pretty much are not too dangerous to be worrying about. So get them out of your facility and then, start to take a very careful look at anybody who’s left, especially anybody with asthma. Tons of kids in my facility had asthma and we know that having asthma makes up the symptoms of COVID worse…or any other medically vulnerable kids. Very carefully start looking at them. Very carefully start doing release plans with the prosecutors, your judges, the probation people. Step one is get big numbers out. 

“It’s a disaster right now and everybody’s really concerned about putting a kid into that disaster. We should have always been concerned about putting that kid into that disaster.”

FIORE: So, in terms of the kids that are released, have you, or people you know, organizations that you know of, have there been any like solid aftercare programs? Cause I know in talking to, some people I was connected with at my previous job, which is a Youth Justice Center in Staten Island, that the kids being released from, Horizons or other detention centers that normally an aftercare plan takes quite a bit of a while to plan, like six months prior to release, you start thinking about aftercare plans and like, what’s going to go on. Do you know anything about either your nonprofit or other people that are helping with this kind of relief? 

SCHIRALDI: You know, I’ve heard that they’re a bunch of groups actually that have gotten together on this and that a lot of youth correctional administrators are starting to sort of amp up their release planning.

We should have all been doing this the first day the kid arrived. The first day the kid arrived you should start thinking, okay, six months from now, nine months from now, where is this kid going to go? What’s that gonna look like? What kind of aftercare plan will it be? So shame on you if you already haven’t been doing that.

One of the things I’ve been thinking is, you know, we’re all wishing life was back to normal. I wish I was sitting in a room with you doing this interview. I wish I could go to a bar tonight. I wish I could go to a Met game. Right? And I wish kids could go back to school. But there are some places where we don’t want stuff to go back to normal. And mass incarceration is one of them. We don’t want to fill these facilities back up. We don’t want to do lousy aftercare plans for these kids. And so we should really be looking at this moment, not just as an opportunity to keep young people safe, but as an opportunity to improve stuff we should have been improving anyway. It’s a disaster right now, and everybody’s really concerned about putting a kid into that disaster.

We should have always been concerned about putting that kid into that disaster, not just now, because they might get COVID-19 but always, because they might get beaten up, they might get raped, their chances of success upon release go down, and because it’s dramatically racially and ethnically disparate. Those should have been our concerns every single day. And now we add to that pile: the pandemic. So this wasn’t an all-fired good idea before, and we don’t want to get back to that normal. 

FIORE: Right. And I think what you’re saying is 100% accurate. You’re really hitting the money on that one where I hate that it took a pandemic for people to kind of be at this level of a quick reaction for reformMass incarceration, like you said, was starting to be prominent in the sixties and seventies. It’s a shame that it took so long to get to this point, but at the same time, this was kind of like a kick out the door to start this type of stuff. How do you think that this pandemic is affecting the court systems in terms of youth, and their timelines?Obviously kids that are released, we hope that there’s no re-offending and that their time in the court system is done. What about kids that are still in youth detention or that were on probation or whatever. How do you think it’s affecting their court timeline? 

SCHIRALDI: Yeah, it’s different in different places. So some courts have shut down. So if you are detained, you might be just stuck sitting there. Other courts have sort of done rocket dockets where they all get on the computer and they resolve a bunch of cases consensually. So some kids might be moving more quickly, but again, it’s something that needs to be looked at, not just now, but going into the future.We could move this kid’s case quickly then get them out of detention when there was an emergency. Why can’t we do it all the time? Because if it’s my kid, it’s always an emergency. 

FIORE: Right. Of course. How do you think that would kind of be implemented? I know it’s great to say all these things that we wish would be done, but how do you think, from your government experience, this actually could be done, that kids could be released more often, that they could have the rocket docket, you know, all these things that seem so great now and they weren’t in place before,ow do you think on an administrative level, this can be pushed to be something that’s not just for now, but in the future and stays?

SCHIRALDI: So a lot of what I’m hearing people doing right now is looking through the list of everybody who’s incarcerated, by the way, on the adult and juvenile side both. And, taking a look at everybody’s circumstances, what crime they’re  in for, what their prior record looks like, are they likely to get sick? And then, trying to make decisions about who can get out. And so the way that’s typically playing itself out is the defense attorneys take a look at it. They make motions, they bring those motions to a special court. A special court is set up to rapidly hear that, the district attorneys are open to hearing it and are agreeing to more of those than it did in the past. None of that has to go away. You can just literally keep that very same process going after the pandemic’s over and the courts reopen, just to have people constantly relooking at the kids in detention and saying, who, of these kids, can go home? The good news is, even though that absorbs resources, that means the judge, a public defender, a prosecutor has to sit and do that. At the same time, it’s costing about a quarter million dollars a year in most places to put a kid in juvenile detention.

So if you can close a facility or even a wing of it, instantly, you can more than pay for that court. And so that’s the way we got to start thinking. As we’ve gotten these numbers down–Casey Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, released a report today showing a 26% decline in number of kids in detention in sites that responded to a survey they issued, right? And that’s in a month. That’s in one month. So if we could get it down like that, and keep it down like that. That has to result in cost savings that can be used not only to finance that process, but also to finance programs for these young people to help them when they get out. 

FIORE: Right. And I think that’s a perfect segway into my next question. So I had worked at a youth court where we used restorative justice practices and community-based  programs to keep kids out of detention centers and out of the court system. And it has, as you probably know, a way better rate through rehabilitation and things like that than just, being incarcerated.So how do you think that with COVID, this is going to affect legislation in terms of restorative justice, community based programs and things of that nature? You think there’ll be more prominent? Do you think that judges will be more open to an afterschool program with a mentor as opposed to being in a group home for a week. You know what I mean? 

SCHIRALDI: I think this is a really good time for advocates to start asking that exact question. So when we emerge from this, what are the public policies and what are the practices we want to start urging the legislature to pass and administrators to enact? By the way, tons of this can be done today, administratively. When I ran the Washington D.C. system, I had release power over the kids. I was probation commissioner in New York and I had the power, when kids came to detention, to send them home, right? Those are enormous powers and nobody needed to pass a bill to allow me to do that stuff. So I sent a ton of kids home.

So advocates should be looking to legislation, but they should also be looking, what can our administrators do within their current power, to keep these facilities with a low population. My bet is that what’s going to happen now is a bunch of people are going to retire from your city and state systems, they’re scared to death of catching this virus in the facilities. Several staff members have died. Several kids have died, so they’re legitimately scared. I’m not putting them down for that. I’d be scared. Because they’re in there with everybody. There’s never enough equipment. All those conditions I described for the kids, staff is living through all those conditions as well, and then they’re going home every night and hugging their husbands and wives and their kids and they’re worried.  

So my bet is, a lot of people are going to leave this field and find other jobs. And that might not be all a bad thing. What we should be saying is don’t replace these people. Replace these people with restorative justice programs. Replace these people with mentorship programs that formerly incarcerated people can staff.  Shift the system from this institution,  prison-based system to a truly community-based system where members of the community are co-designing the kinds of things they need to help their kids survive and thrive in their neighborhoods.Trust me, they have way more of a stake in those kids making it in Brownsville, then the guys and gals working at the correctional facility do.

FIORE: I think that’s a genius idea. I hope people listening to this take that into consideration. So I think we just have one or two more questions for you.So our program always gets requests for volunteer efforts and what our listeners or readers can do to be active in social justice and particularly criminal justice. I know it’s kinda hard to volunteer on an administrative or like a legislative level, but do you know of any organizations or even your own that have any volunteer efforts that people could be a part of? And also on the topic of, like you’re saying, community-based  programs, do you know of any that you could mention that people could look into and how to get this kind of wheel going? 

SCHIRALDI: Community Connections for Youth in the Bronx is one of my favorites. It’s run by a guy named Rubén Austria. And he really is trying to push this kind of thing where people, where communities figure out the best way for their kids to stay home.

I like the Youth Advocates Program. It’s and that is located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but they have programs all around the country. And they just really intensely work with young people to help keep them out of institutions and in communities and back home. The Arches Mentoring Program, and transformative mentoring in general really very specifically looks to formerly incarcerated people to mentor young people so that they don’t, you know, sort of travel in the same path that those fully incarcerated people have traveled. And there has been some really good research on it by the Urban Institute that found much lower rates of reconviction for kids that were part of the Arches program. So that’s kinda cool. 

And then, if you’re interested in advocacy to try to make system change Youth First is bar none one of the best organizations in the country. It’s run by a woman named Liz Ryan, and they have worked very carefully and closely with advocates in, I think they’re up to nine States now, trying to get all of their youth prisons closed and money transferred from the system into the unions. It’s Youth First. I can’t remember what their email address is, but… 

FIORE: Yeah. I actually, before coming on to interview you, last week I was supposed to interview Liz and I had been excited about that. I was researching the No Kids in Prison Movement, and it seems like a really awesome organization. I’m glad that you mentioned that. 

SCHIRALDI: I think that’s actually their email address. I think it’s actually no kids in prisons. You reminded me. 

FIORE: Okay. I think we got a lot of insight through this conversation. I’m really excited for our newsletter to come out that we could possibly plug these organizations for people to follow up with, click the links and see what they could do to help. I guess, is there anything else that you would want to say, to the people listening at home?

SCHIRALDI: Yeah. Sometimes I feel like we make this too complicated. America, we have a really excellent juvenile justice system. That’s the juvenile justice system that kicks into gear every time a white middle-class kid gets in trouble and they get in trouble. They do. I was one of them and I got in trouble, but all sorts of resources get brought to bear: Programs, staunch advocacy, people fill the courtroom to try to keep that kid out of a debilitating locked institution because it’s felt that kid has a future, that boy or girl has a future and we want to build towards that future with the expectation that they’re going to mess up when they’re young, but they’re going to get over that and they’re going to want to live a good, decent life, they’re going to go to college, they’re going to get jobs, they’re going to get married and you don’t want to mess that up, right? 

We don’t have to invent something new. You just have to apply that to everybody. I don’t want the white kids to suffer in the youth prisons and live crappy lives. I want the black and Latino and Native American kids to be able to get the same kind of care and concern that  any of us would want for our child if they got in trouble with the law. And so when you’re thinking about, jeez, this is complicated, what do we do next? It’s not complicated. It’s what any of us would want to do if our kid  got in trouble with the law. And the rest is frankly details.

FIORE: I think that’s really excellent and you’re quite honestly a genius in my eyes. I know for some people it might seem so simple that like this would be, you know, everyone’s train of thought, but unfortunately, it’s not everyone’s train of thought, as I’m sure you’ve seen working in the system for a long time. But I’m thankful that there are people like you vouching for, some positive changes. And I appreciate the work that you do, and I appreciate you letting us interview you today. And I think that this is going to be an awesome podcast and yeah, I just want to say thank you.

SCHIRALDI: Thank you.