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.