July 08, 2019 Practice Points

Ensuring the Safety of Clients in Detention Facilities

A checklist to help lawyers discern whether or not their clients are being housed in facilities that comprehensively meet the children’s needs.

By Sophie Eaglesham

As of this Spring, delinquency lawyers have access to a new resource outlining best practices for promoting client safety in detention facilities through the Juvenile Facilities Checklist for Defenders publication from the National Juvenile Defender Center. The objective of this resource is to arm lawyers with a comprehensive tool to ensure the facilities their clients are being housed in comprehensively meet the needs of their clients. As advocates for youth in secure and non-secure facilities, it is vital that delinquency lawyers can readily identify facilities that do not meet the requisite conditions, enabling the prevention or change in length of stay for youth in these placements. Read on for the key topics of consideration when evaluating youth facilities.

  1. The physical design of the facility and whether it has prison-like features. Assess the level of restrictiveness, as the more restrictive and adult prison-like, the less scope the facility will have to foster positive developmental outcomes in its residents.
  2. The types of contact youth are able to maintain with family members. Identify the ways youth can interface with family and community members, including efforts to support these relationships when healthy.
  3. Educational, recreational, and other programming provided by the facility. It is critical that facilities supply residents with programming that will promote their community reintegration and comply with federal law for educational provisions.
  4. Use of force, solitary confinement, and restraints. Review the facility’s policies for use of force, solitary confinement, and restraints to fully understand what your client may be subject to and how the facility will make efforts to de-escalate tension to avoid these severe measures.
  5. Disciplinary procedures. Learn what rules and regulations your client will be subject to in the facility and how the facility will handle disciplinary proceedings.
  6. Process for grievance procedures and access to counsel. Ensure the facility has clear, accessible means for youth to voice complaints or grievances.
  7. Practices to record, share data, and address instances of abuse, violence, and neglect. Confirm that the facility’s record indicates a history of sufficiently protecting residents, as courts are obliged to only place in facilities that have demonstrated a commitment to ensuring the safety of youth.
  8. The facility’s capacity and accommodation. Examine the facility’s ability to provide appropriate accommodation based on the number of youth it can support, how the youth are classified, and how youth are housed, as these are strong overall indicators of the facility’s ability to support youth as a long-term residence. 
  9. Actions to promote the health and safety of youths. Ask how the facility addresses the full range of health considerations youth may need access to, including mental health and dental health, to ensure the courts do not place your client in a situation where their wellbeing will be at risk.
  10. Staffing practices and staff training. By reviewing staff distribution and training, you can gain a sense of how staff are prepared to promote positive developmental outcomes.
  11. Demographics within the facility and any special considerations for under-represented groups. Consider the demographics of youth in the facility, looking at disparities across age, ethnicity, race, gender, etc., and efforts to provide adequate resources and programming to support youth based on the facility’s demographic breakdown.
  12. Other publicly available information. Broadly review publicly available information, such as reports or lawsuit records.

By using the new checklist and other recommended resources, swift and thorough evaluations of facilities can be conducted to ensure youth placements are adequate and appropriate. This quick, 12-topic checklist is intended to be used as a tool, not merely as a guide. A key theme throughout the checklist is accessing and evaluating all the available data on the facility under consideration. Moving forward, delinquency lawyers should ask the sub-questions in each category of the full document whenever clients are placed in secure and non-secure facilities to ensure the safety of their clients.

Sophie Eaglesham  has her MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and volunteers with the ABA's Children's Rights Litigation Committee.

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