Getting to Zero Juveniles in Adult Jail Is Halfway Home With a Long Way to Go

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WASHINGTON — A new report finds that while juveniles housed in adult jails have dropped more than 50 percent from a recent peak of 7,600 on a single day in 2010, there are still at least 32,000 — and as many as 60,000 by some measures — youths entering adult jails each year.

The report from UCLA Law School, "Getting to Zero," offers a mix of optimism and alarm: Several states have moved in the last few years to limit sharply the number of youth in adult jails, among them New York, California and North Carolina, but the risks to those who are in adult jails remain shockingly high. Youth under 18 in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile detention — and more than 400 percent more likely to be sexually abused than those in juvenile facilities.

"There's no question that there have been a lot of lawsuits instrumental in helping bringing about change," said the report's author, Neelum Arya, the former director of the law school's Criminal Justice Reform Clinic. The lawsuits have reinforced the reform messages of such advocacy groups as The Campaign for Youth Justice (CYJ), even if settlements aren't compiled nationally and averaged a relatively modest $227,000 payout when successfully sued for suicide attempts.

Yet, as a result of a wave of reforms, she pointed out, "One of the main takeaways is that it's eminently possible to remove juveniles from adult jails and to do so in a short time." Her study is the first one to demonstrate conclusively that there are plenty of safer slots in underused  juvenile facilities for them — while highlighting the successes of the 20 states that have passed laws since 2009 to limit juveniles in adult jails. These actions complement the broader effort to find alternatives to youth incarceration altogether in jails and prisons. Vincent Schiraldi, the co-director of Columbia University Justice Lab, hailed the report and tartly observed, "The whole argument was that if we didn't lock these kids up, we'd all be in trouble, but we're doing fine, thank you very much," citing the sharp drop in juvenile crime since 1993.

There are still three key statutory drivers that force juveniles into adult jails, largely a product of the hard-line laws from the 1990s  that were shaped by fears of incorrigible young "superpredators." They are state laws charging 16- or 17-year-olds as adults; mandating or permitting prosecutors to prosecute underage teens as adults for a range of serious offenses; and  requiring youth prosecuted as adults to be held in adult jails before they're tried. Arya's report underscores how changing — or working around — these laws can make dramatic differences. With nearly 90 percent of the nation's youth in adult jails concentrated in just 15 states, adopting raising the age laws for adult prosecution in just nine of those states — changes soon to be implemented in five, including New York — could remove 54 percent of the total in adult jails.  

Another 26 percent could be removed if six states changed their laws automatically charging youth as adults or booking them in adult jails. The state most resistant to such reforms, Florida, has at least 446 teens in adult jails, as of the most recent jail-by-jail census. "The worst system in the nation is Florida," Arya said. (State officials declined to respond directly to the critiques of its juvenile offender policies.) California, in contrast, now has zero such inmates in part because of a 2016 referendum limiting prosecutors. Oregon's reformers — led by the Partnership for Safety and Justicewere burdened by a 1994 ballot measure requiring all youth 15 and older to be tried as adults, landing many in adult jails. But they successfully brought together affected youth, families and local law enforcement officials to support a 2011 law making juvenile detention the default facility, cutting to just two the juveniles held in adult jails.

 Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of CYJ, which focuses on eliminating  such incarceration, said, “Getting to Zero underscores that it is possible in a short, five-year period. All it takes is the political will."

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