February 13, 2014




Calls for a Therapeutic Approach Based on Other State Models To Save Money and Rebuild Lives of 16-18 year-olds

Over 25% of Rikers’ Youth Currently See Solitary Confinement

Read the report

February 13, 2014 – New York, NY – A report released today by the Cardozo School of Law's Youth Justice Clinic, "Rethinking Rikers: Moving from a Correctional to a Therapeutic Model for Youth," uncovers the need for New York City to modernize its treatment and punishment of youth offenders. The report, released at Cardozo Law School during a symposium called Life in the Box: Youth in Solitary Confinement, details conditions and highlights current practices that actually increase the likelihood of sending young people down a path of despair and recidivism. It calls on New York City prison officials to move away from incarcerating youth ages 16-18 at the Department of Corrections facility on Rikers Island and adapting successful correction models used in other states

New York is one of two states that treat 16 year-olds as adults. The report documents a system that encourages a so-called “School to Prison Pipeline”. The report also urges state elected officials to adopt a therapeutic approach such as those in Missouri and elsewhere, with practices that are specialized for and dedicated to youth rehabilitation.

Solitary confinement is one of the most pressing changes needed to be made, according to report authors who are law students at Cardozo Law who visited Rikers and conducted interviews with experts around the country in other criminal justice systems. Over 25% of the youth population at Rikers have spent time in solitary confinement, many for months at a time.  Furthermore, the report notes, 500 youth languish in Rikers Island prison and over 75% of them are awaiting trial.

“Data from around the country shows us that not only are New York City’s practices archaic, but that these policies are counterproductive to the goals of our justice system,” Ellen Yaroshefsky, director of Cardozo Law’s Youth Justice Clinic, said.  “By incarcerating youth, often times putting them through long bouts of solitary confinement, we are not only setting them on a course for failure instead of addressing the underlying problems, but also are spending a lot of money in the process of doing harm.”

The report details how the current policies which incarcerates such a large number of youth with the majority of them awaiting trial, and exposes so many youth to solitary confinement, provides little benefit for long‐term public safety, wastes vast sums of taxpayer dollars, and more often than not, harms the well‐being and dampens the future prospects of the youth behind bars. 

“The severe emotional, mental and physical harm caused by solitary confinement is well documented,” Yaroshefsky said. “Moreover, the practice itself has proven to be unnecessarily costly and a substantial contributor to increased recidivism rates.”

The report also notes that New York City lags behind New York State in modernizing its practices and, furthermore, that the state as a whole is one of only two in the nation that still treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in its courts.

The report explains that solitary confinement, defined in the report as extreme isolation for 22‐24 hours a day with minimal human contact, is the most extreme of the harmful practices, but that the Rikers Island correctional model overall is damaging and in need of significant change.  Specifically, New York City must change from a punitive to a therapeutic model.

The report outlines steps to be taken, and utilizes successful programs both in other states such as Missouri, and even in New York, that can be adapted and applied to Rikers. 

Some of the biggest steps that can be made are banning solitary confinement and taking steps to reduce the population of incarcerated youth.  For example, New York City has already adopted a successful program, based on the Missouri Model, for post-conviction youth called “Close to Home.”  The report recommends that New York City develop a similar pre‐trial instrument to assess which youth are a pretrial flight risk, and the system should offer a continuum of options such as supervision, bail expediting and a non‐profit bail bond system.

“Adopting measures similar to the Close to Home program for pre-trial youth, along with changes in case charging and bail policies and a concentrated effort to accelerate court‐processing time, will significantly reduce the pretrial population of youth,” said Yaroshefsky. “Taking these actions will downsize the Rikers Island population thereby conserving significant financial resources, some of which can be used for effective programming for youth.”

For those youth who do need incarceration the report outlines a model of closely supervised small groups, with group therapy and behavioral management facilitated by trained staff.  For example, in the small group model, youth are grouped in teams of approximately 10‐12, who sleep in the same dormitory style room and spend a significant amount of the day together (during meals, education, exercise, and therapy). Part of the benefit of these groups is that the structured consistency does not allow for a young person to withdraw because they receive support from staff and their peers.

The Youth Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law addresses the growing need for skilled lawyers in juvenile justice litigation and research positions. With a focus on the “school-to-prison pipeline”, it partners with the Legal Aid Society to handle school suspension cases related to clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies. In addition the clinic does impact work to address problems associated with youth in the education and justice systems. Cardozo students work under direct supervision, developing litigation, research reports, advocacy, case development, client interviewing, and counseling, in a wide range of settings.


Read the report 

For more information contact:


John DeNatale

Assistant Dean, Communications & Public Affairs




Jackie Reeves

Assistant Director, Communications & Public Affairs