Thousands of teens accused of crimes can be held for months or even years in county jails, sometimes with adult suspects, reports Scripps-Howard News Service. Federal law aims to shield youths from extended detention and from physical or psychological abuse by adult inmates; the protection does not apply to suspects 17 and younger sent to adult court to be tried for serious offenses such as assault, rape or murder. Youth advocates say this exemption amounts to a major loophole.
Such suspects — about 5,600 at any given time in 2010, federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data show — lack that “sight and sound” protection. More than 1,900 other youths — charged with less serious property or drug crimes — also sit in jail, sometimes because it’s cheaper for cash-strapped counties to keep them there than in juvenile facilities geared toward development and rehabilitation. In jails intended for adults, young suspects face an elevated risk of physical attacks, including sexual assault. Juvenile inmates are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult jails than in youth detention centers, says a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force report. All but three states — North Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming — permit juveniles to be housed in adult jails, says the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.