Throw-Away Children: Juvenile Justice in Collapse


The system is failing thousands of our most vulnerable youth. Is it time for reform?

The U.S. spends $5 billion a year on juvenile corrections, but it's hard to argue that taxpayers are getting what they paid for. Many criminologists already agree that the country's criminal justice system is overdue for reform; but no area seems more in need of urgent attention than juvenile justice.

Statistics suggest that the huge investment is failing those most in need of help. In New York State, for example, a longitudinal study beginning in the early 1990s found that 85 percent of boys and 65 percent of girls who are incarcerated go on to be convicted of a felony as adults, according to Gladys Carrión, Commissioner of New York State's Office of Children and Family Services. Seventy percent of adult prisoners in California were once in foster care.

According to Carrión, the system allows these these young people to be treated like “throw-aways.”

“We obviously don't value them,” she charges. “We incarcerate them and these are their lives' future outcomes.”

Moreover, although Carrión says that nearly 75 percent of incarcerated youth aged 10 to 17 have a diagnosable mental illness, most juvenile facilities have no on-staff counselors. And, if anything, today's juvenile justice system perpetuates an ugly cycle of crime and racial inequity: as of 2007, 1.7 million American children had a parent in prison, according to a report last year by the Sentencing Project (Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007). In 2008, arrest rates for robbery were 10 times higher for black youth than white, according to National Criminal Justice Reference Service figures cited by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquent Protection.

The problems are exacerbated from the moment a juvenile is caught up in the system. Juvenile detention centers around the nation have been hit by a succession of scandals involving sexual and other types of physical abuse.

“We are in the midst of a national crisis of abuse,” says Barry Krisberg, a long-time youth advocate and distinguished senior fellow with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Krisberg, who spoke at last week's John Jay/H.F Guggenheim Conference on Crime in America, cited a recent Department of Justice study that found 12 percent of incarcerated youth report having been sexually abused. “It's a complete collapse of care,” he said. “In these facilities young women are given dirty and torn underwear. The place smells bad. There's a fundamental breakdown of humanity that's allowed to go on.”

Carrión, one of the country's most controversial juvenile justice figures, argues for fundamental reform of the system from the inside. She has used recent media exposés about the horrors of detention in her state's Tryon Residential Facility to push for closing such facilities and transforming their mission, as she puts it, from a “punitive model based on an adult correctional approach” to a more “therapeutic framework of young development.”

She admits that it won't be easy. Conceding that Tryon and similar facilities lack in-house mental health workers even though nearly three-quarters of the state's incarcerated youth have mental illnesses, she observes there are few professionals willing to work with incarcerated youth for the meager state wage.

Indeed. A blockbuster December 2009 report concluded that New York's juvenile prison system was so “broken” that Carrión's agency recommended New York State judges not to send any youths to detention centers unless they pose a significant public safety risk.

Krisberg, whom Carrión hired as a consultant, said that the state essentially gets what it pays for when it comes to corrections personnel, linking low wages and inadequate training directly to the problem.”In many cases, if a Kmart opens up, Kmart pays more than [the officers] are getting paid,” he said. And without proper training to deal effectively with the psychological damage and subsequent bad behavior exhibited by most of the children, “staff are going to do what comes natural and oftentimes what comes natural is abusive.”

Lack of Empathy

But, according to Krisberg, abuse is not the only problem inside juvenile facilities. He points to a lack of common sense and empathy by administrators. Krisberg related an experience he'd had in California where a black teenage girl was brought before a detention center disciplinary panel made up entirely of middle-aged white men and asked to describe her history of sexual abuse and molestation.

Not surprisingly, she felt unsafe relating such intimate, painful details before an audience of strangers she felt no connection with. So she stayed silent–and was given an extra 90 days on her time for failing to participate in her treatment.

Krisberg was floored: “They never thought, maybe we ought to get someone who knows something about young women, their development, their issues.”

Most experts agree that by the time a young person enters the juvenile justice system, the system has already failed her. Unless young children in troubled circumstances get skilled and empathetic attention, their lives will go tragically off course.

Tony DiVittorio, creator of the Youth Guidance Becoming a Man (BAM) program in Chicago, works to prevent at-risk youth from getting caught up in the juvenile justice system by catching young men as soon as they exhibit disturbing behavior in school. BAM aims to help them learn personal responsibility, character development, and how to express their anger in normal and constructive ways. DiVittorio–whose 10-year-old program has expanded to 15 Chicago-area schools and is the subject of a University of Chicago study–says male mentoring is especially important in communities where father-son relationships are often strained or non-existent.

“It's all about prevention,” he said at a special H.F. Guggenheim conference panel on juvenile justice last week. “If Michael's been referred to me because he's talking in class and getting suspensions and I say, 'I'm a counselor, why are you getting suspensions, what's your problem?' he shuts me out. [So instead] I say, 'what is it you want to say?' (and assure him) 'you have a lot to say.'”

Early intervention programs, which identify at-risk youngsters as early as two years old or younger, are also critical, says Sherry M. Cleary, Executive Director of New York City's Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. At the symposium, she offered a seemingly simple solution to help the youngest kids who are showing signs of acting up at primary school levels.


According to Cleary, providing kids with the right sustenance can go a long way toward keeping them out of contact with the criminal justice system.

“Thirty-five years ago I had food in my classroom, because when children came in they were starving and they couldn't pay attention,” she said. “When you're hungry, you're crabby, and when you're crabby you hit people. So do you want to criminalize that child or do you feed them?”

Julia Dahl is a contributing editor to The Crime Report

Photo by circulating via Flickr.

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