Getting to Zero

posted in: Juvenile Justice | 1

WASHINGTON (Aug. 28, 2018) — With adult jails housing an increasing number of state prisoners, and the population within juvenile detention facilities shrinking, now is the time to reassess the way youth prosecuted as adults are incarcerated in America. 

An overwhelming amount of research shows that the adult criminal justice system is ill-equipped to meet the needs of youth, from trial to incarceration and re-entry. Beyond what brain science reveals about adolescent development, the adult criminal justice system does not reduce recidivism and often leaves youth at risk of abuse.

  • Youth in adult jails are at extreme risk of suicide. Every year since 2010, an average of three children have died in adult jails; two out of three by suicide. Youth under the age of 17 in adult jails have a mortality rate nearly twice that of young adults (18-24-year-olds) in adult jails, 9 times higher than youth in the general population, and 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in juvenile detention facility.
  • Many jails are holding youth in solitary confinement. More than half (54%) of jails housing girls, and almost a third (31%) of jails housing boys reported housing only a single youth at the time. 
  • Youth in adult jails are at extreme risk of sexual abuse by jail staff and other inmates, even during brief detention stays: 15% of sexual abuse victims in jails report having been abused by another inmate within the first 24 hours of their arrival at the jail. In fact, sexual abuse by staff in jails is the highest for the youngest inmates (3.3%).  Some populations of youth are particularly vulnerable – girls have higher rates of sexual abuse compared to boys (4.4% compared to 1.6%); white youth have higher rates of abuse than black and Latino youth (6.6% versus 1.1%); and youth who are sexual minorities (e.g., LGBT youth) have higher rates of abuse than heterosexual youth (6.3% versus 1.7%).

A new report, “Getting to Zero: A 50 State Study of Strategies to Remove Youth from Adult Jails,” analyzes national data sets and state laws to provide concrete policy change recommendations to remove youth from adult jails across the country.

Although the number of youth in adult jails has declined over 50 percent since a recent peak in 2010, between 32,000 and 60,000 youth are estimated to enter adult jails every year. 

Getting to Zero provides the first-ever analysis of three nationwide datasets – the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) Census of Jails and Annual Survey of Jails, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Census of Juvenile Residential Placements – to examine how youth currently housed in adult jails can be safely housed in juvenile facilities. Second, it summarizes the major legal developments applicable to youth housed in adult jails. Third, it provides specific examples from jurisdictions across the country which have made substantial progress toward removing youth from adult jails.

Neelum Arya, study author explains, “For the first time we have data to show exactly where youth are incarcerated in adult jails in America, the legal analysis to explain why it happens, and examples of what policymakers can do to remove youth from jails altogether.” 

According to the report, each of the 50 States and Washington D.C. has at least one of six types of transfer laws, and one of three types of jail laws, leading to nearly 1,000 possible explanations of the legal basis for why youth end up incarcerated in adult jails.  Yet the analysis of the 2013 Census of Jails data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that almost 90 percent of youth housed in adult jails were held in just fifteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. 

The majority of children appear to be incarcerated in adult jails due to: age of juvenile court jurisdiction laws which require all 17-year-olds to be prosecuted in the adult system, colloquially known as “raise the age”; automatic transfer laws which require youth under certain circumstances to be prosecuted as adults; and state jail laws which require youth prosecuted as adults be held in adult facilities pre-trial. 

Where youth are not held in adult jails is equally telling. Although most state statutes allow youth to be held in adult jails, in practice, juvenile facilities are being used to house youth who otherwise would be incarcerated with adults in many states. Three of the most populous states in the country, California, Illinois, and Ohio, all have state jail laws which allow youth to be housed in adult jails under certain circumstances, but none of these states have large numbers of youth in jails. This is true even for Los Angeles and Cook County, two jurisdictions with significant gang and gun violence.

The report also provides an overview of positive changes that have taken place and identifies specific strategies states can use to remove youth from adult jails. Since 2009, 20 States and the District of Columbia have passed laws which have started to limit the admissions to, or remove youth from, adult jails.   

  • The single most significant strategy in the effort to remove youth from adult jails is “Raise the Age” legislation. More than half (54%) of the youth incarcerated in adult jails can be removed as part of the implementation of this legislation in nine states.  Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and South Carolina are in the process of implementation.  Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin still need to pass this type of law.
  • The second most important strategy in the effort to remove youth from adult jails are efforts to change the state transfer law through modifying statutory exclusion laws which automatically exclude a youth from the juvenile justice system.If six states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Pennsylvania – were to change their transfer laws and jail laws to prohibit youth from being held in adult jails at arrest, the population of youth in adult jails could be reduced by an additional 26%.
  • Every State which currently allows youth to be housed in adult jails should consider updating their jail law to ensure youth are only housed in adult jails in the rarest of instances. There are several states – notably Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin – where the text of the state jail law requires that youth must be held in an adult jail under certain circumstances. If these 5 states were to change course and go from requiringto prohibiting housing youth in adult jails, the number of youth incarcerated in adult jails would drop by 21%.
  • In addition to state-level reforms, city and county officials should pass specific ordinances and develop internal county policies to include presumptions that youth tried as adults are detained in juvenile facilities.Although large urban jails holding large numbers of youth dominate the conversations about youth in adult jails, most counties and jails hold few youth at a time which the report shows could be accommodated in other juvenile facilities.  If counties which held less than 9 youth at a time found other placements for these youth, the number of youth incarcerated in adult jails would drop by 33%. 

The report provides recommendations for policymakers at the federal, state, and local level; jailors and juvenile detention administrators; prosecutors and public defenders; and advocates all have a role to play to assist in Getting to Zero.

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