ROBIN DAHLBERG AND AMY REICHBACH
Children go to jail, for lack of options
By Robin Dahlberg and Amy Reichbach May 12, 2008
TWO YEARS ago, a 15-year-old named Maria was arrested for bringing a small fingernail file to school.
For eight weeks, she was held in a secure juvenile detention center awaiting trial. She was strip-searched upon entering the facility. She was housed with children who were drug-addicted, mentally ill, and charged with far more serious crimes than she was. The doors and windows of the facility were locked. And her ability to move around inside the facility was limited.
Maria was not jailed because she was a flight risk, or because she was a danger to her community. She was jailed because, having been raped by a family member before her arrest, a Massachusetts Juvenile Court judge felt she could not live at home safely. And the Commonwealth had no other place to put her. There were no readily available placements in either the Commonwealth's child welfare or mental health systems.
Maria's case is extreme, but she is hardly the only Massachusetts child to be jailed inappropriately while awaiting trial for a minor offense. Our organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, recently examined documents from the Department of Youth Services and interviewed dozens of professionals in the juvenile justice system. From the interviews, we found that hundreds of children who should be in the Commonwealth's child welfare and mental health systems are being jailed because Massachusetts has failed to provide these systems with sufficient resources.
Although these children have been charged with minor, nonviolent criminal acts, they are neither flight risks nor dangers to their community. Last year, for example, almost half of the 5,400 children who were locked up had been charged with misdemeanors. Most were eventually released back into their communities after their cases were resolved. Yet each child spent an average of 25 days in lock-up before an alternative placement was located or the child was permitted to return home.
Adding insult to injury, the Commonwealth's failure to adequately fund its child welfare and mental health systems falls heavily on the shoulders of youth of color. Although children of color comprise slightly more than 20 percent of Massachusetts's population between ages 7 and 17, they account for 60 percent of all children detained before a trial.
We are failing our children if we are locking them up for weeks at a time because we have nothing else to offer them. We are also threatening public safety. National research demonstrates that secure detention is one of the most accurate predictors of future criminal behavior. It further demonstrates the detention environment exacerbates behavioral problems, mental health issues and educational difficulties, and that detained youth are more depressed, angry, and dysfunctional when they are released than when they entered.
Massachusetts has already taken some important steps to limit the use of pre-trial juvenile lock-ups. The Commonwealth's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee has publicly announced that one of its priorities reducing the number of youth of color in detention facilities. The Department of Youth Services is spearheading an effort supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop alternatives to detention.
But we must do much more. We must invest in creating alternatives to jail for youth like Maria. Massachusetts should increase the availability and accessibility of placements for adolescents in both the Commonwealth's child welfare and mental health systems. In addition, it should develop community-based programs to supervise children who need such supervision in order to return to their families. And the Massachusetts Juvenile Court should use these resources, limiting secure pretrial detention to those children who are flight risks or dangers to their communities.
The current approach is not working. By creating effective alternatives to pre-trial lock-up and reserving secure detention for the relatively small number of children who truly need it, Massachusetts can invest our scarce tax dollars more wisely. We can keep our kids in school rather than in lock-up and, in so doing, make our communities safer in the long run.
Robin Dahlberg is a senior staff attorney with the national ACLU Racial Justice Project. Amy Reichbach is the racial justice advocate for the ACLU of Massachusetts.