OP-ED: Yes to Equal Treatment; No to Equally Bad Treatment

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LRyanIn a July 25, 2014, editorial, “Equal Treatment is in Order for Iowa's Troubled Juveniles," The Des-Moines Register argues that girls are now worse off than boys because the Toledo juvenile home has been closed. The editorial says that “delinquent girls should have the same opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation and education as boys,” concluding that girls and boys should be “treated equally by Iowa's juvenile justice system.”

Girls had previously been at the Toledo juvenile home under harsh and inhumane conditions. Governor Branstad closed the facility because of reports that girls were being placed in isolation for months at a time and were not receiving adequate education. With Toledo closed, the juvenile justice system has responded with harsher sanctions for girls. Girls appear to be much worse off than boys in Iowa's juvenile justice system as a result: Three girls have subsequently been sent to the adult criminal justice system and three to facilities out-of-state.

While the editorial asserts that “very few [girls] need to reside in a locked facility,” the editorial seems to imply that the state should build a new facility for court-involved girls.

However, gender equity should not mean that girls and boys have access to the same inhumane, harmful and ineffective treatment in the juvenile justice system. That is, addressing gender disparities in Iowa's juvenile justice system should not mean building another youth prison for girls to replace the Toledo facility for these reasons.

First, the abuse in youth prisons is well documented in lawsuits, news reports and from incarcerated youth themselves, and Iowa is no exception.

Over the past four decades, 57 lawsuits have been filed in 33 states on conditions of confinement for youth in youth prisons. These lawsuits cite abuses such as physical and sexual assault, excessive use of force and restraints by staff, as well as isolation and solitary confinement of youth.

When surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice, 42 percent of incarcerated youth were somewhat or very afraid of being physically attacked, 45 percent said staff used force when they didn’t need to and 30 percent said staff place youth in solitary confinement or lock them up as discipline.

Second, these conditions have a profoundly negative and life-long impact on youth. Research demonstrates that placing youth in youth prisons is iatrogenic. In other words, youth are worse off after being incarcerated. Incarceration in youth prisons is a significant predictor of involvement in the adult criminal justice system and of early mortality. Confinement in a youth prison also puts kids further behind in school, and upon release from youth prisons, few youth re-enroll in school and many often experience difficulties finding employment.

Further, placement in youth prisons puts financial strains on families and breaks crucial family ties. According to an analysis by the National Center on Juvenile Justice, Iowa and every other state either requires or allows parents to be charged for the cost of their children's incarceration. Parents are assessed incarceration fees for their children even if the facility is poorly run with abysmal conditions. Many parents and families do not have regular contact with their children due to distance, travel time and expense to get to the facility, even though the majority of incarcerated youth want to maintain contact with their family.

In addition, youth reoffending rates increase after youth are in youth prisons. While comparisons are difficult to assess because states calculate reoffending rates differently, data from the comprehensive No Place for Kids report shows that 70-80 percent of youth are rearrested within two to three years of release.

Finally, the cost ought to be cause for reconsideration. On average, states spend $241 per day or $88,000 per year to place a youth into a youth prison. By contrast, effective community based alternatives to incarceration cost $75 per day. And these costs do not even factor in the “opportunity cost,” i.e. the lost value of benefits if funds were used more productively.

Instead of building another youth prison for Iowa's court-involved girls or even a small subset of them, Iowa policymakers should consider what the research tells us and reject the obsolete youth prison approach that hasn't worked for boys, much less girls, and adopt best practices for court-involved youth.

A report released by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, "Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States," encourages policymakers to invest in gender- and culturally-responsive, trauma-informed services and supports for girls in the community.

Gender equity is a worthy goal that should be strived for. Girls should not be worse off than the boys in the juvenile justice system, which the editorial so rightly points out.

This situation is not just a chance to correct gender disparity, however. It is an opportunity to fundamentally transform a flawed system for both girls and boys. Iowa children deserve no less.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ.

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