OP-ED: Behind Juvenile Justice Statistics are Real Human Consequences

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If it’s possible for a public policy research topic to be “in vogue,” juvenile justice has been a craze for the past decade.

Bookshelves and flash drives have been filled with statistics and studies of crimes by kids and against kids and what approaches are best at preventing and responding to both. The evidence-based practices evolving from this research have helped reduce crime and the number of incarcerated children in America. The bumper crop of research is due in large part to the confluence of tight state budgets and the commitment of the MacArthur Foundation and several other foundations, which have insisted on the collection of data and analysis — the evidence of best practices. [Editor’s note: The MacArthur Foundation is a funder of the JJIE.]

The latest harvest in that bumper crop has grabbed the attention of policy wonks and could result in even more use of preventative practices that keep kids out of prison cells and deliver successful and less expensive responses at the community level.

A good example is “Comeback States,” the 10-year narrative explaining how nine states significantly reduced their juvenile prison populations through six separate strategies. The National Juvenile Justice Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation compiled the data and details in the report, which included funding re-alignments like Redeploy Illinois and Ohio’s RECLAIM approaches. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, both states also stood out in the recently released federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report of “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012.”

Illinois and Ohio, along with Georgia and South Carolina, were noted in the BJS report as running prisons with the nation’s highest percentage of youth inmates reporting being sexually victimized at least once in a 12-month period. Those states had overall sexual victimization rates exceeding 15 percent, at least 35 percent higher than the national average. I hasten to add that all four states have quickly reacted by modifying policies, appointing investigators or blue ribbon panels, and in Georgia’s case, by suspending 19 in-facility investigators. The states’ reactions are laudable but are even more imperative given the cause of the high rates: “primarily due to high rates of staff sexual misconduct.”

In addition to these sobering statistics on abuse of youth, the BJS study also provides insights on commonalities of systems and facilities with the highest rates of reported abuse. For instance, the study documents that sexual victimization rates were two to three times higher in large facilities than those with 10 to 25 youth. Youth who held positive opinions about facility staff (such as “good role models,” or “friendly” as opposed to negative opinions of staff – such as “disrespectful” or “mean”) were the least likely to be sexually victimized. Those youth with the most negative opinions had the highest rates.

Facilities with an average length of stay of less than five months had the lowest rates of sexual victimization. Rates of staff sexual misconduct were higher for youth age 17 (8 percent) or older (8.7 percent) while the staff sexual misconduct rate with youth age 15 or younger was 5.8 percent. In yet another instance of disproportionality, black youth reported a higher rate of victimization by facility staff (9.6 percent) than white (6.4 percent) or Hispanic (6.4 percent).  Youth who had experienced any prior sexual assault were more than twice as likely to report experiencing one or more sexual assaults (17.4 percent) than those with no prior history (8.2 percent).

Victims reported that staff perpetrators gave them special treatment and provided gifts, told them about their life outside the facility and contacted the youth when the staff member was away from the facility.

Sadly, this new BJS report is not the first report of sexual abuse and misconduct in facilities holding children. In a bulletin headlined “The Nature and Risk of Victimization,” the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released its Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, which was completed in 2003 and used a similar methodology to the BJS report.

Conducted with precise attention to research rigor, these reports provide great insight into the conditions of confinement and risk factors of a youth experiencing violence and sexual victimization.

Behind the dry statistics are real human consequences, and an inescapable reality:  incarceration of young people – particularly in large, isolated facilities – is a fundamentally flawed concept.

Approximately 70,000 youth are in some form of incarceration on any given day, and the U.S. incarcerates five times more youth than the next highest country. These numbers create a population subject to sexual victimization – behind bars, under control, without access to family or independent advocates or lawyers and with ineffective grievance systems. And almost 60 percent of them are incarcerated for offenses that do not pose substantial threats to public safety. The outliers in society – the mentally ill, previously abused and crossover kids join LGBTQ youth as victims of criminally responsible adults in positions of authority.

Most importantly, the smallest facilities had the least victimization. Big states do not require big institutions. The Missouri Model is the example that is most talked about and the least emulated. We must right-size both the population of juvenile detainees and the facilities in which they are housed – and only use them as a last resort.

And one last thing – while we continue to work to reduce the unnecessary use of incarceration — fairness and public safety also require that we immediately investigate and prosecute the adult sexual offenders who prey on the kids that the juvenile justice system has unwittingly placed in harm’s way.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois’ Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board, and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor’s degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.

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