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Tamar Birckhead Headshot

Juvenile Hall Is No Place for Kids

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The local detention center where my juvenile clients are held while their cases are pending is called the "Youth Home." The irony of the label is never lost on me, as the contrast between the name and the reality could hardly be more stark.

The rundown building is surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, kids sleep in narrow locked cells, no different from what you'd find in an adult jail. They are subjected to strip searches and attend an hour or two of "school" in a crowded room filled with a random selection of books.

Juveniles are detained here for a variety of reasons. Some have been deemed dangerous to the community as a result of past or current criminal charges. Others are runaways or throwaways whose parents say they have no other options. A good number are drug addicted or mentally ill children who are awaiting placement in treatment centers. Many are caught up in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, without family to support their release.

In speaking with kids over the years about their detention experiences, I mostly am told how boring it is and how lonely and sad they become. Some talk about having to learn to fight -- or at least act like they could win a fight -- in order to get by. And these are the good days.

Yet, in the scheme of things, conditions here are relatively benign.

Across the United States, juvenile detention facilities have come under increasing scrutiny. In Polk County, Florida, where youth are held in a wing of the county jail, allegations of mistreatment include the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents by guards. The Southern Poverty Law Center has initiated a class action lawsuit against Polk, with a trial set for May. At other facilities, there are reports of overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and sexual predators.

According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), over 30,000 youth are confined in short-term detention facilities annually. Of the approximately 730 facilities, county, city, or municipal employees staff the vast majority. In 2008, 42 percent reported using mechanical restraints (i.e., handcuffs, leg cuffs, waist bands, leather straps, restraining chairs, strait jackets, or other mechanical devices) in the previous month, and 45 percent locked youth alone in some type of seclusion. While the overall population of juveniles in custody is declining each year, the numbers and the conditions of confinement are sobering.

Repeated studies have demonstrated that locking up young people has little impact on recidivism rates and that ultimately it is harmful to the individual as well as the community. Research has shown that neither the type of offense nor the length of the sentence is an accurate predictor of whether a juvenile will reoffend. In fact, there is no significant difference between the rearrest rate for offenders who served probation versus those who were committed.

So, what is the alternative? Suspend the practice of reflexively placing youth in detention settings for both the short and long-term, whether for punitive or treatment-related purposes. In most cases, utilize community-based services, wraparound therapy for families, and outpatient treatment instead of removing adolescents from their homes and families. For those youth with no other options, turn our juvenile detention facilities and "training schools" into centers of rehabilitation that offer psychological treatment, vocational training, and quality education.

We don't have to look far to find examples that work. Consider the Regional Youth Center in Waverly, Missouri, or the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Washington, D.C. These facilities have colorful dormitories and counselors who give hugs instead of concrete cellblocks and armed guards. They provide daily group therapy and a full day of academics instead of boot camps and solitary confinement. And they cost less to operate than traditional models, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars.

Just imagine if the Durham Youth Home were transformed. The razor wire would be removed, the cell walls taken down, and at-risk children and teens would be provided with support, services, and education in a positive, affirming environment.

Now that would be a place worthy of its name.

Professor Birckhead's commentary is also posted at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.