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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org