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September 26, 2014
At Rikers, a Need for Accountability

by Harriet Karr-McDonald

To the Editor:

Re “Report Found Distorted Data on Jail Fights” (front page Sept. 22):

While it is important to reform the adolescent unit at Rikers Island, we must also devise more creative and effective alternatives to incarceration for youths who are poorly educated and fundamentally without hope.

Their hopelessness comes from the same places they do: where incarceration and unemployment have been handed down from one generation to the next and where, in the absence of strong family structures and support networks, their only opportunity for economic independence is the drug trade.

Residential programs that educate adolescents, remove them from toxic, hopeless environments, and provide them with supportive work experience would offer them a far better chance of leading a rewarding and productive life than months spent trying to survive the violence of the adolescent jail. So would many other kinds of alternative programs, from job training to career-based education.

It costs $400 a day to keep a teenager locked up at Rikers. It’s time to invest much more wisely in the future of the young people in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. We need to develop residential model alternatives to incarceration for those who have not committed violent crimes, and we should test them rigorously to see which ones work best.

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