July 09, 2018 Articles

How Lawyers Can Make a Difference in Reducing Mass Incarceration for Juveniles

By Isabel Sistachs

Juveniles are a unique subset of the prison population that are often left out of the national conversation on reducing incarceration rates. The United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country, and the youth population is no exception. Incarceration has become a problem rather than a solution, and right now thousands of our country's youth are imprisoned in place of restorative alternatives. Violent and nonviolent juvenile offenders alike are subjected to harsh prison treatment, and some are even being held in adult prisons. The negative mental health effects experienced by juveniles while they are incarcerated are far-reaching as multiple studies have shown. While they are detained they are taken away from their families and schools, placing a strain on their relationships within their communities. Lawyers have the ability to steer juvenile justice in the right direction. This article offers recommendations for how lawyers can do so in the hopes that we can soon reduce mass incarceration of our country's youth.

The Prison Policy Initiative
The Prison Policy Initiative released an extensive research report on youth confinement for 2018, offering a detailed breakdown on juvenile incarceration. The most recent data shows that there are up to 53,000 incarcerated youth in the United States on any given day, of which 10 percent are being held in adult prisons. The rest are detained in youth prisons, such as detention centers, long-term holding facilities, group homes, residential treatment centers, wilderness camps, shelters, and diagnostic centers. Youth facilities, some housing children as young as 12 years old, are not very different from their adult counterparts despite the fact that the two hold distinctly different residents. Some of the features of these juvenile institutions, such as the continued practice of solitary confinement, mirror those of adult prisons.

Of the almost 18,000 juveniles held in detention centers each year, over 5,000 are imprisoned for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Some have only committed a technical offense or status violation which can include failing to report to a probation officer, running away, or violating curfew. These minor offenses are keeping young people behind bars in emotionally taxing environments. The danger to society presented by these nonviolent, low-level offenders is arguably minimal if not absent. Yet, they are forcefully and abruptly removed from their families, schools, and communities to await a trial or serve time sometimes before they are even adjudicated. Even if an offender is initially nonviolent, the dehumanizing environment present within detention facilities could push them to engage in violent behavior fueled by anger and indignation. The money and resources used towards incarcerating these nonviolent juvenile offenders could be reallocated to better fund educational programming for at-risk youth in high crime communities. Offering programs for at-risk youth to participate in at a free or low cost will keep them busy while simultaneously advancing their knowledge.

Limited Access to Educational Opportunities and Services
While these youth are detained, the unavoidable reality of the situation is that they have limited access to educational opportunities and services. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) published an exhaustive report in 2016 on the status of education in justice facilities in comparison to public schools. Research found that teachers working within the justice facility school system are more likely to miss school therefore impacting their teacher-student relationships. Furthermore, justice facilities are less likely to offer core math and science courses to their students. Only 28 percent of justice facilities offer Algebra II as a course option compared to 78 percent of all high schools; these educational disadvantages will surely hold back a student population that is already behind. The OCR also found that 23 percent of youth attending school in justice facilities have been diagnosed with a disability, and many of these facilities are not equipped to offer the sufficient attention that is needed to ensure that students with disabilities can excel. Many of these facilities have been found to not have the trained faculty, such as special education teachers, needed to deal with an array of student disabilities and may not have the resources to fund specialized programming. Mistreatment of disabled students in juvenile facilities has long been a problem. In 2016, the Office of Civil Rights found that the San Bernardino County Office of Education unlawfully discriminated against students with disabilities in their system's juvenile facilities. One discriminatory practice they engaged in was having inadequate procedures for identifying students with disabilities. Regrettably, this is not an isolated case. Educational conditions in juvenile facilities have proven to be far less superior than their public school counterparts.

The Effects
The damaging effects of incarceration so early on in life can have serious consequences on the mental well-being of youth offenders as they mature. Rodney Erwin, a child psychiatrist from Northern California, wrote an article on the role of the juvenile justice system in adolescent development. His research explained that when youth are incarcerated in detention facilities they often experience negative labeling of self and those around them, negative opinions of authority figures, and feelings of rage and hopelessness, all of which lead to serious mental health issues. Moreover, confinement naturally heightens these thoughts and feelings which can further intensify an already unfavorable situation. Relationships with detention facility staff also have a tremendous impact on the well-being of the confined youth. Often, these relationships are characterized as punitive and hierarchical, which can lead to built-up resentment towards people in power, creating a negative toll on the mental health of the juvenile offender.

The effects of incarceration have proven to be extensive and detrimental to the well-being of the youth offender. Fortunately there has been a push in recent years to reduce juvenile incarceration rates and advocate for the rights of youth through supporting alternatives to incarceration. Lawyers are at the forefront of the potential for change and there are many ways to get involved:

  • Volunteer at juvenile justice clinics at a law school in your area. These clinics, operated by faculty and students, provide youth with both pre- and post-dispositional legal representation. The unfortunate reality is that many of these youth that are tried in the juvenile justice system do not have the resources to pay for lawyers. Volunteering at a clinic is a great way to contribute to reducing juvenile incarceration rates by advocating for youth clients, for example by suggesting alternatives to imprisonment. These clinics also present the opportunity to fight for a juvenile who is already serving a sentence but whose rights are being violated in the system. [Note that the Children's Rights Litigation Committee maintains a Directory of Children's Law Programs where you can find out if there is a clinic in your area.]
  • Actively voice your support for candidates running for different offices, such as governors, head of states, and district attorneys, who prioritize reducing mass incarceration among the youth… and don't forget to vote for them. Prosecutors especially play a pivotal role in the future of the juvenile justice system; voting for one who believes in restorative justice and juvenile incarceration alternatives will go a long way.
  • Encourage your firm to dedicate a portion of their pro bono work to juvenile representation and advocacy efforts. Imprisoned juveniles have long been forgotten when allocating resources for reducing mass incarceration. Apportioning a segment of a firm's time and money towards unrepresented juveniles in the justice system and fighting to offer them an option other than youth imprisonment will likely reduce the problem of youth mass incarceration.
  • Support community-based organizations that provide youth with after-school activities, mentorship programs, and employment opportunities. This can be done in the form of volunteering your time or donating your resources. These types of programs keep young people occupied and out of trouble while simultaneously furthering their potential for success.
  • Educate yourself on your state's juvenile justice profile at Juvenile Justice GPS (Geography, Policy, Practice & Statistics). Stay up to date on changes to the juvenile justice landscape and learn the structure of your state's juvenile justice system to see if there are any gaps in which you can utilize your skills to help the cause.

Statistics speak for themselves. Lawyers can do their part in representing the disadvantaged youth that end up in the system. They can serve as advocates for this forgotten subsection of the American prison population and in doing so reduce juvenile incarceration rates through pushing for alternatives to imprisonment for adolescents. Whether it be pre- or post-placement into a detention center, lawyers can offer representation and support to the thousands of juveniles in the justice system today. You can learn more about statistics, demographics, and trends surrounding youth confinement here.

Isabel Sistachs is a Political Science and Legal Studies double major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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