The girls at the Mississippi detention center were tied up for weeks at a time. Minor offenders, some as young as 13, were cuffed and chained when they ate or used the bathroom. In the words of Erica, a 16-year-old detainee, it was a place that "made you feel like you were nothing."
The boy was beaten and restrained by guards on his first day at a juvenile boot camp in Northwest Florida, suspected of faking an illness to avoid exercise. Martin Lee Anderson died from his injuries early the next day. He was 14.
David Burgos spent much of his young life running away from abusive group homes. One of the estimated 80 percent of juvenile offenders who suffer from a recognizable mental health disorder, the bipolar 17-year-old was arrested in 2006 for a probation violation related to a minor theft charge. After four months at Connecticut's Manson Youth Institution without mental health care, David hung himself with a bed sheet.
According to the most recent data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, nearly 80,000 people under the age of 18 are held in juvenile detention and residential facilities around the United States each day. To juvenile justice advocates across the nation, the stories above are all too common in a system where punitive policies increase recidivism and exacerbate juvenile crime.
"We have a huge blind spot as a nation, an inability to see the human rights violations that are occurring here on our soil in our juvenile justice system," says Zachary Norris, Director of the Books Not Bars campaign at Oakland's Ella Baker Center, an initiative to reform California's youth prison system. "We often talk about how the [Iraq] war is expensive, but there's also our war on young people here in the United States that's incredibly wasteful."
Norris and other juvenile justice advocates now have their eyes turned to Congress, where ongoing legislative developments could produce the first meaningful response to this crisis in years. The Senate is currently in the process of reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, the federal legislation that sets standards for juvenile corrections systems in the states.
In addition to increasing federal funding for drug treatment, mental health care, and mentoring programs designed to keep children out of the juvenile system, the new iteration of the Act, Senate Bill 3155, includes an amendment to eliminate the incarceration of status offenders within three years of the bill's enactment. Status offenses are charges like truancy, running away or other offenses that would not be criminal if committed by an adult, and result in the incarceration of thousands of young people in some states, says the Washington, DC-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
The Senate bill would also require the states to work towards reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. Youth of color make up 34 percent of the American population below the age of eighteen but 62 percent of youth in juvenile detention, according to a report released last year by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
While it's important to keep in mind the many abuses that the bill will not address--laws in more than forty states permitting adult courts to try children as young as 14, the sentencing of young offenders to terms of life without parole, the increasing criminalization of trivial misbehavior in schools--passage of the new iteration of the act would nonetheless represent a major step forward.
It would also recapture the spirit of progressive reform that propelled the JJDPA's initial passage over thirty years ago. Under the original JJDPA of 1974, the states agreed to humanize their often Dickensian juvenile corrections systems in return for increased federal aid. This promising arrangement collapsed in the 1990s during what The New York Times has described as "hysteria about an adolescent crime wave that never materialized." Even as youth crime figures plummeted across the nation, stories of juvenile delinquency increased in the media and states intensified all kinds of punishments for children. Large numbers of juvenile offenders were sent to adult jails where, research has shown, they are more likely to be abused and transformed into repeat offenders. In Norris's estimation, "we are still seeing the repercussions of that movement" in the treatment of juvenile offenders today.
The new version of the JJDPA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31 with its major amendments intact and should soon advance to a full Senate vote. "Hundreds of organizations throughout the country, including some unlikely allies, have voiced strong support for the juvenile justice reforms in the Act," says Carol Chodroff, US Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. "There is significant recognition from a vast array of stakeholders in the juvenile justice system--including many law enforcement organizations--that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of juvenile crime and delinquency."
A far more promising approach has been playing out on the local level. Over the past decade, Missouri's juvenile corrections system has been celebrated for a rehabilitation-oriented model that invests in small community-based centers, keeps young offenders near their homes to participate in family therapy, and helps young people with job placement and therapy referrals upon their release. Missouri has achieved the lowest recidivism rate in the nation.
In Pima County, Arizona, where "scared straight" policies once produced such rampant incarceration that the local juvenile detention facility had young people sleeping in a cafeteria, a local partnership with the Anne E. Casey foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has drastically reduced the juvenile prison population. The number of children arrested for violent or property crimes dropped 43 percent between 1997 and 2006 and the county's presiding Juvenile Court Judge says there has been no increase in juvenile crime despite the lower incarceration rate.
"If you have youths wondering, 'Am I a good person or a bad person?' and you put those young people in detention, you're confirming this is who they are and this is who we expect them to be," Judge Patricia Escher told the Arizona Daily Star in June. "When you detain young people inappropriately, what you do is send them on a path of criminality."
In Zachary Norris's estimation, Congress must keep the success of these programs in mind as it assesses the new JJDPA. It is time, he says, to ask "What programs actually build on the strength of young people? Help them get job skills? There's a recognition that tough-on-crime policies hurt us. If kids are worse off when they return [from detention], then we're worse off as a whole."
"We've still got a row to hoe," says Tara Andrews, deputy executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, looking ahead with cautious optimism to the JJDPA's progress before Congress. "But when you start seeing all the work that's being done, you realize there's not isolated pockets of reform. You realize a platform for change is being built."