In South Dakota this week, a non-profit organization filed suit against the state’s Corrections Department for its handling of juvenile offenders now incarcerated.
The allegations of mistreatment and abuse are shocking, but perhaps shouldn’t be — our nation has been promoting a tougher approach to juvenile crime for years. The results, experts say, are starting to come in.
Fear of ‘Super Predators’
The latest wave of tough-on-crime initiatives was born out of fear. Five years ago, arrests for murder, aggravated assault, and robbery were setting records. And some experts began warning about a new breed of young “super predators”—a prediction that led to federal initiatives like the Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996, introduced by Florida Congressman Bill McCollum.
According to many experts and officials, the super predators never materialized. Says one public defender, who asked to remain anonymous: “I don’t see that the children have changed very much. I can see that their environment has changed. It’s a more dangerous time. Same temptations, but amped up” — because of how easy it is for them to get powerful weapons.
Tough Love Gone Wrong?
Juvenile crime may not have increased, but responses to juvenile crime are increasingly tough and often draconic. Five years ago most young offenders in South Dakota were placed in community-based programs rather than large penal institutions. Since then, children as young as 14 have been placed into large prisons. The system “is both barbaric and counterproductive,” says March Schindler, Staff Attorney for the Youth Law Center, a national public-interest law firm that works on behalf of juveniles in the justice system. This past week, Schindler and his colleagues visited a juvenile prison in South Dakota and talked with 12 teenagers. The group walked away, says Schindler, “with the belief that these kids were being severely mistreated,” that a poorly trained staff was “totally incapable” of handling their charges, and that the teenagers were suffering from a lack of services as well as from “punitive and arbitrary punishment.”
After investigating numerous stories of abuse, the Youth Law Center filed a Class Action lawsuit this week, with these allegations:
These charges come following the death of a 14-year-old girl who was forced to run as punishment — the event that touched off the scrutiny of the South Dakota facilities last year.
- In a practice known as “four-pointing,” girls have been tied down in spread-eagle-fashion by male staff, who then cut off their clothing with scissors.
- A 13-year-old boy was confined in isolation for more than 30 days, and severely depressed children are put in isolation without supervision for long periods of time. Children are routinely chained to the doors of their cells in a practice known as “bumpering.” All forms of communication between inmates and their families are monitored for negative comments about the facility, and negative comments are punished. Psychotropic medications are being dispensed by staff without adequate training, and without supervision by medical or mental-health personnel.
“They are abusing kids as well as not giving them any treatment,” Schindler says. He’s worried that the South Dakota juvenile justice system is “creating an engine for crime,” making problem kids worse.
Further, the system may be biased against kids with learning disabilities. Experts who have profiled juvenile offenders have found that they are often kids who hit a learning wall early in life, who may have trouble reading or progressing through school. Over time, this may become a disability and a frustration. And by the time they reach their teens, the situation can deteriorate. They may act up in school. Violent or anti-social behavior may be their recourse.
If this is not an excuse for criminal behavior, it is nevertheless a haunting reality, especially when literally hundreds of experts will tell you the same thing: the justice system is littered with young men and women with learning disabilities.
And many of these individuals are minorities. Black children aged 10 to 17 are only 15% of the population. Yet they account for 26% of juvenile arrests, 32% of delinquency referrals, 41% of juveniles detained in delinquency cases, 46% of juveniles in correctional institutions, and 52% of juveniles transferred to adult criminal court after judicial hearings.
Furthermore, some studies have shown that white teens who commit the same crimes are less likely to face such extreme policies.
Yet the politics of juvenile justice rarely seem to reflect the realities. According to the Youth Law Center, more than 40 states have changed their laws in recent years to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults.
This, says the Center, happens despite evidence showing that juveniles who move through adult corrections facilities are “significantly more likely to be rearrested than those kept in juvenile court, commit new offenses sooner, and commit more serious offenses than juveniles kept in juvenile court.” One of the most studied and successful programs can be found in South Carolina, where extremely difficult teenagers are helped without being locked away. Rather, staff intervene in their lives in an effort to help the children gain some self-esteem, and work with parents to foster a stable home life whenever possible.
It is a relatively simple, though time-consuming, recipe for change. Schindler says the programs that work are generally small, staff intensive, and directed at helping kids make a connection with a caring adult. That adult doesn’t break them down: instead he or she finds some strength in the teenager and builds on that asset. It is an attempt to turn troubled youth into self-respecting citizens.
These attempts, however difficult and costly they may be, are worthwhile. Our current course, exemplified in South Dakota, could prove self-defeating very quickly. The predators of tomorrow may be the children we have failed today.