THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Juvenile Detention: When Young People Can't Say 'No'

The exact numbers are not the point, but the order of magnitude matters: "about 12 percent of youths held in state-run, privately run, or local facilities reported some type of sexual victimization" in the previous year, according to a new Justice Department study, covered well by the New York Review blog and others.

About 80% of the incidents involved facility staff -- the vast majority of whom were women -- while the rest involved other youths. In the detention context, any sexual activity with staff is defined as victimization. Other findings included:

  • 10.8% of males and 4.7% of females reported sexual activity with facility staff.
  • 9.1% of females and 2.0% of males reported unwanted sexual activity with other youth.
  • Youth with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual reported significantly higher rates of sexual victimization by another youth (12.5%) compared to heterosexual youth (1.3%).
  • Youth who had experienced any prior sexual assault were more than twice as likely to report sexual victimization in the current facility (24.1%), compared to those with no sexual assault history (10.1%).

A handful of facilities were singled out as having serious problems with reported sexual abuse, including several in North Carolina.

The response from the state in N.C. was sad but not surprising, illustrating the consent/coercion problem for these young people. On the outside, they are often too young to say "yes" to sex, if they wanted to, because of age-of-consent laws. On the inside, where control over their bodies is legally out of their hands, they cannot plausibly say "no" -- their status not only as delinquents but as victims of previous sexual assaults makes them unreliable witnesses, giving cover to their abusers:

Anonymous data taken from youths with histories of serious behavioral problems is unreliable, the [N.C.] agency's response said. Further, there has been a pattern of false claims of sexual abuse among girls at the Samarkand Center, a 36-bed facility for females [where 33% of respondents reported abuse]. ... William Lassiter, spokesman for the state juvenile justice department, said the agency routinely conducts its own surveys and that those reports come nowhere close to the level of abuse found in the federal study.

Whom to believe? Justice Department survey used anonymous computer questionnaires completed with no one looking over their respondents' shoulders. It is carried out under mandate from the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

As Luke Gilman writes (in a post that includes helpful references), "False reporting is bound to be a problem and difficult to determine, but the numbers indicate a problem that can simply no longer be ignored by officials charged with their care." People often lie about sex, whether it's consensual or not. But when one side is imprisoning the other, you have to give special weight to the testimony of the weaker party.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.