RI Violates U.S. Funding Law By Jailing “Status Offenders”


For years, magistrates for Rhode Island Family Court's truancy program have imprisoned students who misbehave during hearings on their attendance, despite a state law created to keep the government from locking up juveniles for noncriminal offenses, the Providence Journal reports. The magistrates, who run the weekly truancy court in classrooms, cafeterias, and school offices around the state, have declared youths as young as 12 in criminal contempt of court for not answering their questions, swearing, slamming a door on their way out of the room or otherwise showing “total disregard for authority.”

Once inside the juvenile correctional system, the youths are forced to undergo strip searches, urine, and blood tests. They wear prison uniforms and, for a night or two, mix with teenagers accused of drug dealing, robbery, weapons possession, assault, and other violent crimes. Juveniles who skip school — like those who drink alcohol or violate a curfew — are considered “status offenders” because their transgressions would not be considered crimes if they were adults. “These are blatant violations,” said state public defender John Hardiman. “There's no 'this is a gray area of the law.' It's clear you can't detain [in] these cases.” John J. Wilson, a former attorney for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said incarcerating juveniles for noncriminal offenses, even for one night, violates the basic premise of the federal act. “We don't punish adults for doing things that are not criminal,” he said, “so why in heaven's name would we punish children for doing things that aren't criminal?” For Rhode Island to use its criminal-contempt statute to lock up truants, Wilson said, is “an abuse of judicial authority [] And it's a practice that should be stopped.”

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