Keeping Young Offenders Safe From Harm

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

Last August, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued its long awaited regulations to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), unanimously approved by Congress in July 2003, and signed into law by President George Bush.

Those regulations also contain essential guidelines for protecting the estimated 10,000 young people who are currently held in adult jails and prisons around the U.S.

The guidelines are contained in the Youthful Inmate Standard set by the DOJ, which states that, “as a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles” and bans the housing of youth in the general adult incarcerated population.

The regulations, for which governors must certify compliance by October 1, also prohibit contact between youth and adults in common areas of prisons, and ensures that young offenders are constantly supervised by prison officials and jailers. At the same time, the regulations require limitations on the use of isolation. Governors—and prison directors—should lose no time in making sure the guidelines are followed.

Research shows that young people are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization in adult jails and prisons. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”

In a recent letter, the House authors of PREA, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) applauded the DOJ's efforts to implement the PREA. They urged the Attorney General to issue clear guidance to jurisdictions on the Youthful Inmate Standard, noting their concern that “in implementing this standard, adult facilities will often be faced with choosing between housing (youth) in the general… adult population or housing them in segregated settings.”

Such segregation, the two Congressmen noted, “often leads to youth spending long stretches in solitary confinement, which can aggravate mental health problems and put youth at higher risk of suicide.”

It is equally important that Attorney General Eric Holder follow the advice of his own Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, which issued comprehensive recommendations in December 2012 on reducing children's exposure to violence.

The recommendations included a suggestion that states should “stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.”

In order to adequately protect children from the dangers of sexual assault, as well as from the negative impacts of solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons, states and counties should remove them from these facilities altogether.

They should be placed, instead, into juvenile detention or correctional facilities.

Fortunately a number of states, including California, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon, already have long-standing policies that prohibit the placement of youth in adult jails or prisons, and instead, divert them to juvenile detention or correctional facilities.

Other states such as Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Ohio and Virginia have recently passed laws to bar the placement of youth in adult jails or prisons.

States and counties not yet in compliance could create Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) between adult detention and correctional facilities and juvenile detention and correctional facilities to safely house youth in juvenile facilities.

Alternatively, they can issue executive orders requiring that youth be kept in juvenile, rather than adult, facilities. And, in some states, a change in legislation may be needed to bar placing youth in adult facilities.

Technical assistance is available through the National PREA Resource Center and the National Center for Youth in Custody, both of which are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal funding to assist states and localities is provided through grants issued by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

It is crucial that governors implement best practices to fully protect youth in the justice system. They must remove young people from adult jails and prisons, and they should access federal support to undertake new reforms.

For more information on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, click HERE.

Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice and co-chairs the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign of the National Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC). She welcomes comments from readers. Please click here to see a detailed set of legislative, funding and administrative recommendations from the NJJDP Coalition.

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