...and probably didn't WANT to know, honestly.
For almost three years, I covered the United States juvenile justice beat. I went into detention centers and spoke with correctional officers and interviewed at least a hundred incarcerated kids and their parents. It’s a sector of America not a lot of people mull over, and even fewer seem to care about. Seeing as how only half a million predominantly ethnic youths are shoved in and out of the nation’s largely crumbling juvenile system each year in America, perhaps there’s a reason why it’s not such a big blip on the national radar.
I would like to say there are a lot of popular misconceptions out there about the juvenile justice system, but that would mean people actually think they know what the system itself is like. The reality I’ve encountered is that about 98 percent of the populace has no earthly clue what youth corrections -- and especially the juvenile legal system -- entails, so I’ve taken it upon myself to give you folks some straight talk.
Here are five facts about America’s juvenile justice system that you probably weren’t aware of. Prepare to be enlightened … and probably horrified.
FACT ONE: “Scared Straight” is a bunch of hooey
Whenever I told people I worked in the juvenile justice sector, I almost always received the same response: “Ah, man, I LOVE 'Beyond Scared Straight!'”
As in, "Beyond Scared Straight," the A&E program that revolves around the filmed exploits of juvenile delinquents taking adult prison tours. The average episode revolves around teens having urine tossed on them, getting their shoes yanked off by inmates and occasionally being threatened by Bloods and Crips while prison guards hang out in the back and chuckle. Each episode has the exact same narrative: the kid acts a fool, gets the living daylights scared out of him by convicted rapists and murderers, and then he goes home, learning to respect and love his momma and not do any more crimes.
There’s quite a few problems with the whole Scared Straight shtick, beginning with the fact that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention refuses to fund such programs, citing them as potentially harmful to youth and likely to increase the likelihood of a juvenile re-offending. Study after study has found that programs following the model are generally ineffective. A 2013 Campbell Collaborative report said it loud and clear: “the analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing.”
On top of that, there’s this little thing called the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which explicitly mandates “sight and sound separation” for of-age and under-age inmates in adult prisons. So, we have an outmoded form of shock therapy that has not only been proven to not work, but actually MAKE more crime than prevents it, that quite possibly violates Federal law.
But hey, at least it makes for interesting cable drama, I suppose.
FACT TWO: There is a LOT of sexual abuse going on…by women.
In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report finding that roughly one out of every 10 youths in U.S. juvenile facilities have experienced some form of sexual abuse. That’s actually a decrease from the first National Survey of Youth in Custody in 2009, which estimated that about 13 percent of locked-up juvies were sexually victimized.
That’s pretty darn shocking in and of itself, but what’s really flabbergasting is who is doing the abusing. While about three percent of incarcerated juveniles said they were victimized by fellow inmates, roughly EIGHT percent of the population said they had been victimized by detention center staffers. In some facilities, the rate of sexual abuse climbed as high as 30 percent of the entire incarcerated youth population.
And the kicker here? It looks like we’re primarily dealing with a female-on-male problem, with nine out of 10 male sex abuse victims saying they were victimized by staffers lugging around XX chromosomes. Nearly 90 percent of staff-abused youths say they were victimized more than once, with a staggering 20 percent of the population saying they were sexually abused more than 11 times.
FACT THREE: There are WAY more adults in the juvenile justice system than you’d think.
One of the things that shocked me most about the US juvenile justice system was the staggering number of adults held in juvenile facilities. As in, grown men in their early 20s, who are held in the same centers alongside 15-year-old truants.
Depending on the jurisdiction, offenders can be held under juvenile justice department supervision well past the age of 18, with some states allowing inmates as old as 25 to remain in youth facilities. This isn’t a handful of adults we’re talking about either: in West Virginia, for example, roughly a quarter of the state’s entire juvenile detention population consists of adult inmates.
But that’s not the really concerning part. Remember the Prison Rape Elimination Act we discussed earlier? While PREA strictly enforces juvenile and adult offender separation in adult jails, the exact same provision -- the Youthful Inmate Standard -- doesn’t apply to youth facilities.
FACT FOUR: States have no earthly idea what they’re doing.
From my personal experiences, it seems as if juvenile justice departments are probably the worst-run state agencies across the nation. Executive turnover is alarmingly high, transparency is comparatively low compared to adult correctional systems and corruption, malfeasance and outright ineptness is more of a norm than an exception.
The heart of the problem is likely the bureaucratic skein propping up most juvenile justice systems. Most short-term detention centers are county-operated, while the long-term holding facilities are state-operated. Of course, other agencies -- usually the Department of Child and Family services equivalent -- are tasked with handling juvenile aftercare, while the Department of Health is in charge of linking kids up with both in-and-out-of-home treatments and services.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of interdepartmental (and even intradepartmental) communication usually leads to oversights and flat out service failures. Nobody is really sure who is supposed to do what, and many states have decided to turn over their juvenile justice services to privatized contractors to avoid the headaches. Florida is probably the most noteworthy, since they recently became the first state in the nation to privatize every last one of its short-term youth detention facilities.
So, US juvenile justice systems are pretty much left with two options: leave the kids at the behest of lumbering, ineffective and uncoordinated state-and-county level agencies, or contract the job out to privately held entities, who allow virtually zero transparency at all -- and periodically, sell youth offenders like chattel for their own financial gain.
FACT FIVE: Everybody wants alternatives, but nobody knows how to implement them.
It’s not a secret: the juvenile justice system in U.S., for the most part, is seriously messed up. Over the last decade or so, there have been some pretty large movements to shift the juvenile justice industry into something kinder and gentler -- but there’s definitely some problematic spots regarding the “juvenile justice reform” trend.
To begin, it’s not exactly a grassroots revolution. Instead, the two biggest forces for juvenile justice reform in the nation just so happen to be two of the largest foundations in the US -- the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Needless to say, they have spent a TON of money to convince states to adopt their own juvenile justice solutions and models, with practically every pro-juvenile justice reform report or study you’ll read nowadays having their financial backing.
Their pitch is relatively simple: they want less incarcerated youths, and more “detention alternative” programs. Since the average jailed youth costs taxpayers a ton of money -- the average annual cost to house ONE juvenile offender in Illinois is $85,000 a year -- a lot of conservatives have hopped on the reform bandwagon, too.
The problem is, we’re not exactly sure HOW to properly implement these highly touted reform programs. Sure, there are quite a few activist judges out there sending kids to “restorative justice” community service instead of lock-up, but there’s no real guarantee that jurisdictions can successfully fund such programs on their own. While it’s probably true that low-level youth offenders would be better served by targeted community services like drug treatments and Functional Family Therapy, I tend to wonder if cash-strapped counties have the funds set up for it -- and especially if they have means of keeping the programs sustainable.
The most effective treatments for young offenders are generally multisystemic “wrap-around” services which consist of state aid from the juvenile justice department (or its equivalent) in tandem with support from local child services, probation officers and health departments.
The juvenile justice reform solution, then, is basically getting kids wrapped up in MORE departmental care. Sure, you may not be spending $85,000 a year in direct incarceration costs, but I’m pretty sure linking a kid up with family and children, health department and probation services -- in addition to any number of privatized community alternatives -- isn’t going to be all that much cheaper. Reform efforts, under that model, aren’t saving taxpayers money -- its just diversifying the revenue stream to different agencies and contracted players.
The pro-reform mantra is that such non-incarceration programs cut down on recidivism, which in turn, saves states in future expenses. That very well could be true, but at the present, I have deep, deep concerns about the viability of the “detention alternative” solution.
For example, Georgia recently passed a sweeping juvenile justice reform bill, which invested more money in community-based solutions and made it illegal to jail youths for truancy and running away from home. Now, giving detention alternative grants to counties sounds nice and all, until you realize many of the counties awarded such grants didn’t actually have any community-based programs in place before receiving them. There are also profound concerns that juveniles may receive worse treatment and services in the alternative programs than they would through the DJJ, and that erratic funding would mean some counties receive a surplus of grants while others receive literally nothing at all. And ironically, closing down youth detention centers largely means youths have to be shipped further away from home to receive services they would’ve gotten locally just a year ago.
The big one, however, is a service provider shift that no one in the pro-reform camps seem to be talking about. With status offenses no longer garnering DJJ involvement, what we’re seeing statewide now are large numbers of youth being placed under the supervision of DFCS instead. That means more children being taken out of their homes and placed in less-funded foster services that are completely unequipped to handle youth with even moderate behavioral issues.
As bad as outcomes for incarcerated youth are, the outcomes for youth in foster services is statistically even worse. Unintentionally -- or at least I hope unintentionally -- Peach State juvenile justice reform has thus far meant nothing more than shifting costs from one agency to another, with tentative outcomes looking to be far worse for taxpayers and juveniles alike.
Hardly anybody wants kids in prisons, yet there’s hardly enough proof out there to demonstrate that most communities can successfully implement and support detention alternatives without major state investments -- or outside privatized services.
There may be a better way to handle juvenile offenders, but the solutions we’re being sold at the moment, I am afraid, are far from the cure-alls being advertised.