The Nation's Pulse

Juvenile Abuse

America's juvenile justice system is a scandal.

By 3.11.11

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When former Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted last month on racketeering and bribery charges connected to the convictions of more than 2,500 juvenile offenders, it marked the latest chapter in one of the nation's most-sordid criminal justice scandals.

For seven years, Ciavarella and his partner in crime, former presiding judge Michael Conahan, helped funnel $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails. They often helped fill the pockets of the operators by tossing alleged youth offenders -- many of whom were first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors such as spraying graffiti, writing prank notes, and truancy -- into those jails, often finding the kids guilty in less than two minutes (and essentially denying the kids the right to lawyers to boot). In exchange for Ciavarella and Conahan's beneficence, the jail operators kicked back more than $2.6 million -- including $997,600 just for shutting down Luzerne County's government-run child jail.

Only in 2009, after a decade of complaints often ignored by Ciavarella and Conahan's fellow judges and Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, did federal investigators bring down the entire "Cash for Kids" scheme. Since then, several hundred of the guilty rulings handed down by Ciavarella have been overturned while the cases themselves have been expunged. This, unfortunately, has come far too late for many of the young men and women who now must deal with the scars, physical and otherwise, from Ciavarella's wrongful convictions. One teen caught in Ciavarella's grasp committed suicide less than a year after spending time in one of the juvenile jails.

Journalists such as former Wall Street Journal scribe Thomas Frank, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, and Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum either simplistically conclude that Cash for Kids epitomizes the consequences of privatizing prisons or argue that it represents the over-criminalization of American life. None of this is gets to the heart of the matter. The scandal is just the latest and most extreme example of a system that is dysfunctional and costly to kids and taxpayers alike.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice shocked the nation when it revealed that one out of every three kids held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. This included 37 percent of kids imprisoned at the curiously named Backbone Mountain Youth Center, and Indiana's Pendleton juvenile prison, which has become nationally known thanks to the popular MSNBC reality show Lockup. Nationally, 12 percent of all juvenile prisoners reported molestation and other forms of sexual abuse.

The juvenile court system in Indianapolis came under scrutiny in 2006 after allegations surfaced that nine employees at the juvenile jail were sexually abusing youth offenders; this came after revelations of rampant overcrowding. While prosecutors couldn't sustain those charges in court, the author of this piece revealed in a series of editorials and columns that juveniles were often denied attorneys and, in some cases, were being falsely convicted of crimes. For example, one 16-year-old was convicted by one juvenile court magistrate for allegedly molesting her three year-old son and photographing the action; the conviction was overturned after appellate judges found that the photo used to justify the conviction actually showed the young woman kissing her child's belly. (The judge who oversaw the entire mess, Jim Payne, now works under Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as head of the state's child welfare agency.)

Meanwhile, Texas had to overhaul its entire juvenile justice system in 2007 after it was revealed that 4,700 convicted youths were kept in juvenile prisons or on probation beyond their original sentence. The state also revealed that 2,000 kids in the state's juvenile prisons were allegedly subject to abuse. And in Chicago, the infamous Cook County juvenile jail came under watch after news that guards were abusing inmates; the county government eventually turned the jail over to the county's judges.

Such rampant abuse was not what progressive-era reformers had in mind when they began pushing for the creation of juvenile courts at the turn of the 20th century. Activists such as Hannah Kent Schoff, an early president of what became National PTA, were outraged that children and teens were landing in adult prisons -- sometimes at the hands of parents annoyed that their kids wouldn't work in factories -- for mischief and essentially becoming apprentices to hardened felons. So they carved out an alternative to the criminal justice system in which judges would sort out mischievous kids from budding sociopaths, then use probation and social workers to help youths get onto the straight-and-narrow.

But such a system, along with welfare policies that discouraged two-parent families, essentially gave parents the license to abdicate their own responsibilities to be good parents; so many dysfunctional parents turn to the juvenile courts for help, overwhelming the system. America's woeful public schools also contribute to the problem Two decades of often-nonsensical zero tolerance rules and the presence of police officers in school corridors have resulted in more pranks, graffiti incidents and schoolyard brawls landing in courthouses. The overdiagnosis of students with learning disabilities also contributes; 30 percent of incarcerated youth surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice were diagnosed as being special ed cases, while a team led by University of Florida professor Joseph C. Gagnon determined in a 2009 study that between 38 percent and 44 percent of juvenile inmates were taking special ed classes.

Two-thirds of the 2.1 million juvenile arrests made in 2008 were for misdemeanors such as vandalism and so-called "status," or age-based, offenses like underage drinking and truancy. In Arizona, for example, the number of juvenile court cases originating out of schools increased by 41 percent between 1995 and 2004, according to a study led by University of Massachusetts, Amherst professor Michael Krezmien released last year. A child pushing a snowball through a teacher's open car window is as likely to land before a juvenile court judge as a member of the Crips caught in a street fight.

Add to the mix the reality that juvenile court judges not only run the courts, but often the juvenile jails and probation departments, and suddenly, the system becomes chaotic. State laws often allow the judges much wider discretion in sentencing, with convicted youths often falling under the watchful eye of the court until age 21 or long after they reach adulthood. So a teen on probation can end up in jail because of another act of mischief. With few checks and balances -- including defense attorneys, criminal procedure, and even law enforcement -- found in adult courts, juvenile courts can be ripe for abusive judicial behavior. This is especially troubling because only three states mandate that alleged youth offenders must have lawyers; in many states, parents can even waive their child's right to counsel -- even if they are the ones who brought charges in the first place.

Juvenile justice systems escape any easy reform. There are certainly kids who belong in juvi, but far too many shouldn't be in courtrooms. Ensuring that alleged child offenders have lawyers at every step would at least help give them due process; in fact, juvenile courts should adopt all the legal aspects of the adult criminal justice system since the penalties for juvenile conviction can sometimes be just as serious as those faced by adults. More stringent scrutiny of juvenile prisons, jails, and probation departments would also help. Even better would be for schools and states to drop the zero tolerance laws; this (along with overall school reform) would keep more kids out of courts, jails, and prisons.

But the best solution starts at home and in communities: Parents need to take better care of their kids from birth. And communities can help by setting good examples (including embracing marriage and the Golden Rule). Courts were meant to preserve law and order, interpret laws and mediate disputes that would otherwise be handled in less civilized ways. They weren't meant to solve the most deep-seeded social ills -- and they've proven it time and again at the expense of kids.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era. He can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.