A rising number of juveniles in America's criminal justice system are being subjected to physical abuse, excessive incarceration and detainment in adult jails and prisons claims Amnesty International USA in a new 64-page report, "Betraying the Young."
Another of the report's major findings is that "in clear violation of international human rights law," adults have been executed for crimes that they committed when they were children. As of june 1998, said the report, there were 73 inmates on death row for offenses committed when they were under 18 years of age.
"We're one of six countries that execute for convictions under 18 years of ~ said William Schulz, Amnesty international USA's executive director. After naming the others as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iran, he offered: "These are five countries whose company we don't want to be found in."
"We tend to think of the United States as the standard against which justice should be measured worldwide," remarked Sue Burrell, a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. This report ought to give the federal government and the states pause, she said, "because we have a lot to do before condemning another country's atrocities toward children."
Among the reports findings:
- As of February 1995, more than 84,OOO children were in secure custody as accused or convicted offenders;
- Large numbers of youngsters are detained when accused of committing offenses and incarcerated following conviction when other options were or should have been available;
- Thirty-eight slates now house juveniles in adult prisons with no special prograrns or educational services for young inmates;
- Teens in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to be beaten by staff than those in juvenile facilities; and
- Between 1986 and 1995, the number children confined in locked facilities before their cases were heard or following conviction grew by more than 30 percent.
A spokesman for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention said he was not aware of the report and could not comment on any of the points that it made.
"There is no justification for America putting its children into these brutal situations," said Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center Fxecutive Director Robert Schwartz. What's worse, he said, is that Americans are being sold the bill of goods that they are purchasing safety with brutality.
Schulz echoed Schwartz by saying, "The image that we now have huge numbers of murderous juveniles who need to be taught a harsh lesson by society is a myth." Schulz went on to say, "These kids will be back on the streets one day and nothing is [more] guaranteed to turn a confused, angry teenager into a bitter adult than abusing them when they are in prison, ignoring their mental health concerns and housing them with adults.
The report also covers excessive use of incarceration, cruel use of force and restraints, solitary confinement, inadequate services for children with mental health prob\-lems, imposition of harsh and inflexible sen\-tences, and the faflure of the federal and state governments to fix a standard minimum age of criminal responsibility that takes into account a chfld's emotional, mental, and intellectual maturity.
The Amnesty report contains recommendations to federal, state and local authorities responsible for elements of the justice system to improve the detection and prevention of violations of children's human rights. Among them:
The report concludes that "the notion of the 'super predator' and the 'teenage time bomb' has fueled irrational and short-sighted policies which ultimately strip young peple of their human dignity and rob our society of untapped human potential.
- Undertake periodic reviews to determine whether children are being placed in custody only when no other alternative is appropriate;
- Provide an adequate range and number of community-based detention and rectional programS;
- Provide adequate mental health services in the community so that children with mental health problems can be treated in therapeutic rather than correctional environments;
- Require staff to be specially trained to work with children;
- Prohibit the use of isolation as a punishment for children;
- All states should legislate to keep every detained and imprisoned child completely separate [from adult inmates].
- The U.S. should sign the Conventions on the Rights of the Child, a U.N. treaty which it has so far refused to sign.
Amnesty International USA can be reached at (212) 633-4200.