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Jails May Not Be Able to Hold Juveniles Pretrial Much Longer

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Local governments would have three years to find space for youths elsewhere, space a recent UCLA Law School report argues already exists.

Local governments would get three years to figure out how to keep youths being prosecuted as adults out of jails under legislation approved last week by Congress.

Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act was approved unanimously and now awaits consideration by President Trump.  

While 20 states have passed laws since 2009 to limit juveniles being housed pretrial in adult jails, at least 32,000 youths still enter such facilities each year, according to the UCLA Law School “Getting to Zero” report published in August.

Author Neelum Arya found that, of the 2,931 jails recorded by the federal government in 2013, only 96 held more than 10 juveniles, but those jails also housed 67 percent of the juveniles in adult facilities nationwide.

“They are not places that know how to provide for young people’s educational and mental health requirements,” Melissa Goemann, senior policy counsel for the National Juvenile Justice Network, told Route Fifty. “The youth typically do very poorly, and many sheriffs don’t want them there for that reason.”

Arya found juveniles in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and 400 percent more likely to be sexually abused than those in youth detention.

The National Sheriffs’ Association did not take an official position on the legislation, said spokesman Patrick Royal.

H.R. 6964 brings federal law in line with recent state reforms seeking to reduce locking juveniles up in detention or secure facilities as officials “recognize that kids do better in their own communities,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Under the legislation, juveniles awaiting trial and charged as adults would have to be housed in a secure facility other than an adult jail and away from adult inmates by 2021.

There are exceptions. Youths can still be held in adult jails for up to six hours until alternative placement can occur, and judges would still be able to place juveniles in adult jails “in the interest of justice,” but only after a hearing.

The UCLA Law School report found 15 states housed 89 percent of incarcerated juveniles in adult jails as of 2013: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. A common thread is hardline laws dating back to the 1990s that saw states move to charge more juveniles as adults, resulting in them being held in adult facilities.  

But more and more states have been moving away from these policies in recent years, concerned about the long-term effects of exposing young people to the adult criminal justice system.

New York and North Carolina are close to removing all youth from adult jails, according to the report, which would reduce the national population 28 percent. If Michigan and Wisconsin update state jail law while raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, and Georgia and Texas just do the latter, that would be another 22 percent reduction.

The UCLA report suggests a number of remedies to keep juveniles out of jails, starting with changing laws so that fewer teenagers can be charged as adults. For those who are prosecuted in adult courts, the report suggests that many can be placed in juvenile detention facilities, which are better equipped to provide education and other services. Many jurisdictions across the country have reduced the populations in juvenile detention, which means there is ample space to absorb youths charged as adults, the report notes.

In working through new mandates for how the juvenile justice system deals with children, advocates had to make one “big concession” in the legislation for Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, Mistrett said. Cotton wanted to keep “status offense” language allowing judges to put juveniles who violate court-ordered curfews or are truant in detention for seven days. Cotton has argued that judges need to be able to enforce their orders.  

But advocates have countered that detention is the wrong response for many children in juvenile court for issues like skipping school.

“[Arkansas] regularly lock[s] up 8 and 9 year olds for curfew violations,” Mistrett said. “It’s expensive, and it drives kids further into the system.”

More broadly, the legislation requires states to develop plans to track racial and ethnic disparities across the system with data, engage family members regarding service delivery, and eliminate the use of restraints on pregnant girls during labor and delivery.

“This is pretty much the only federal bill that establishes national standards for how kids should be treated in the juvenile justice system,” Goemann said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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