Juvenile Justice "Hurts"

By Rick McDevitt

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 11-12

Even though the rate of juvenile crime is down, there has been a lot of discussion about the need to expand the construction of juvenile prisons. Expansion is not the answer. In fact, the current system is not reforming children, it is actually hurting them.

Last year, in the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, there were 4,600 inmate-on-inmate beatings and almost six-hundred staff-on-inmate beatings. Less than 10 percent of all juvenile crime is violent, yet large numbers of nonviolent offenders are in cells with murderers and rapists.

According to Georgia crime statistics, white children are arrested twice as often as African Americans, yet more than 70 percent of kids in detention are black. Crimes committed by African-American youth are not more serious; in fact, 75 percent of the children in the Georgia juvenile justice system are there for nonviolent offenses, like shoplifting, truancy, and trespassing.

Meanwhile, the state is building more prisons to provide jobs for local residents, not rehabilitation for youth. Jailed youth are not being rehabilitated. They are being raped and abused; last year in Georgia, there were more than 175 reports of sexual assault in juvenile detention centers. They are attempting suicide; there were more than 180 reports of attempted suicide. They are suffering mentally. The Mental Health Association of Georgia reports that 55 percent of incarcerated children have clinical depression and 45 percent have been diagnosed as having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Georgia's youth prisons provide little or no clinical help. They are receiving inadequate education; of the thirty-two juvenile facilities in Georgia, only one has an accredited school. They are receiving little or no medical attention and insufficient rehabilitative services. And, with all this neglect, the Department of Juvenile justice reports that it costs $40,000 a year to lock up one child.


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In 1997, a U. S. Department of Justice investigation found that the state juvenile justice facilities were "grossly substandard," "egregious," and "unconstitutional." According to the report, Georgia's juvenile facilities lack enough space to separate younger, more vulnerable youths from older, potentially more predatory youth. In one incident reported in the investigation, a child held for violation of probation was housed with three youths accused of armed robbery and aggravated assault and was beaten and sexually assaulted without intervention from the staff.

As a result of low staffing levels, a male staff member was able to sexually assault a fourteen-year old female resident after persuading the only other staff member on the shift to take a nap.

Sooner or later, incarcerated juveniles return to their communities much worse for their experience. Almost nothing is spent on community-based alternatives, like drug addiction and prevention programs, intensive supervision, or restitution,the smart alternative to the current juvenile justice system programs which would get to children's lives sooner, rather than later. We know that in the medical profession, prevention and early intervention are less expensive and more effective than catastrophic care. The same reasoning should be applied to juveniles who commit petty property crimes and other less serious offenses.

Resources must be provided for after-school programs, intensive supervision and mentoring, drug prevention and treatment, and mental health counseling for confused or troubled youth. And parents must be given the tools they need to regain control over their confused adolescents.

In June 2000, the Georgia Alliance for Children, backed by forty organizations kicked off a campaign to educate citizens on the atrocities that are occurring in the system. The grassroots movement is demanding that Governor Roy Barnes and the Georgia State Legislature redirect the fifty million dollars used to operate youth "dungeons" and invest it in community-based intervention, prevention and aftercare programs that help solve problems before they become serious. These blatant disparities and statistics should draw Georgia lawmakers to their feet, demanding action. The neglect of juvenile justice that has led to facilities operating at 150 to 300 percent over capacity must stop.

Rick McDevitt is president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. For more information, please call the Georgia Alliance for Children at 404-688-7327 or email at: alliance@bellsouth.net

Sidebar: "And Justice for Some" Report

"And Justice for Some," a report commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative and released in April 2000, revealed that youth of color experience more severe treatment than their white peers at every stage of the juvenile justice process. Following is an except from the summary of the report.

This report shows that youth of color are overrepresented at each point in the system and that this disadvantage accumulates as they move through the system," says Michael Jones, co-author of the report and Senior Researcher at NCCD. "Minority youth are much more likely to be referred to juvenile court, be detained, face trial as adults and go to jail than white youth who commit comparable crimes. This makes kids of color much more likely to spend their formative years behind bars."

Among the other key findings of the report: In every offense category--person, property, drug, public order--a substantially greater percentage of African-American youth were detained than white youth. Minority youth are overrepresented in the detained populations in nearly all states. African-American youth are more likely to be formally charged in juvenile court than white youth, even when referred for the same offense. Minority youth were much more likely to be waived from juvenile court to adult criminal court than white youth, even when charged with the same offenses. This was true in every offense category. When white youth and minority youth were charged with the same offenses, African-American youth with no prior admissions were six times more likely to be incarcerated in public facilities than white youth with the same background. Latino youth were three times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated.

Nationally, custody rates were five times greater for African-American youth than for white youth. Custody rates for Latino and Native American youth were two times the custody rate of white youth. In 1997, 7,400 new admissions to adult prisons involved youth under the age of eighteen. Three out of four of these youth were minorities.