Juvenile detention law often ignored
Some states mix youths and adults
CHEYENNE, Wyo. - When Erica Olivares ran away from home at age 16, the penalty was not a stern lecture. It was a month in Laramie County jail. Soon, under the tutelage of adult criminals, she was addicted to drugs.
"Methamphetamine - I'd never even heard about that. And I heard about that in there," said Olivares, now 26.
Legally, she should never have been in position to learn about it. Runaways are not supposed to be put in jail, let alone meet adult lawbreakers on the inside, under a 34-year-old federal law called the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
Yet year after year, some states disregard key parts of the law with little consequence, an Associated Press examination has found. Those states included Wyoming, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Washington in 2006, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The federal law provides funds for compliance, and money can be withheld for failure to comply, just as millions in federal highway funds can be lost by states not setting a drinking age of 21.
But the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act provides far less grant money - from $600,000 to about $7.5 million annually per state. This is less than the cost of building juvenile lockups and hiring guards trained to work with juveniles. States feel less public pressure to comply, juvenile advocates say.
The Department of Justice, which administers the act, has a policy of not naming publicly the noncompliant states and not disclosing how those states have run afoul of the law. As a result, many youths become victims, advocates say.
"Kids' lives are literally at stake," said Liz Ryan, executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based group that lobbies to keep youths out of jail. "They can be harmed in adult jail. They can be harmed in juvenile correctional facilities."
The Senate Judiciary Committee began debating renewal of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 2008. The process bogged down but is expected to resume in the new Congress. Ryan said she is hopeful that the Obama administration will help improve the law and compliance.
Advocates say the law's renewal is a good time to open up procedures, require every state to have a full-time compliance monitor, and reverse steep cuts in federal funding for juvenile justice programs.
The law contains four core areas:
Juveniles generally should not be held in adult jail.
If they are put in an adult jail - for an adult felony or if space isn't immediately available at a juvenile facility - they must be separated from adult inmates.
Juveniles should not be locked up for age-specific crimes, such as running away or possessing alcohol.
States should not lock up minority youth at a higher rate than other children.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has said he has had trouble obtaining information on compliance.
"Congress does not receive reports on whether a state has met the standards in the act, and states are not required to publish their state plans. The result has been a serious lack of transparency and accountability in compliance," Kennedy said.
It was only after a six-month, back-and-forth process under FOIA that the AP obtained records of states' compliance. The Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention said it doesn't routinely name noncompliant states because it doesn't want to embarrass them.