Getting the Juvenile-Justice System to Grow Up

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If it's not the biggest scandal in American legal history, many are calling it at least the darkest day for the country's troubled juvenile-justice system. For more than four years earlier this decade, two senior county juvenile-court judges in northeastern Pennsylvania took kickbacks of $2.6 million in exchange for packing thousands of kids off to privately owned detention centers. Many of the kids had committed minor offenses and didn't have the benefit of a lawyer. A 14-year-old from Wilkes-Barre, for instance, spent a year in a Glen Mills detention facility for the offense of stealing loose change from unlocked cars to buy a bag of chips; he was only set free after public-interest lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the punishment. (See pictures of children behind bars.)

The miscarriage of justice goes beyond the judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, who pleaded guilty on Feb. 12 to federal charges of wire and income tax fraud and face the prospect of more than seven years in prison. State and federal authorities are still investigating the case, and the owners of the detention center, PA Child Care, have not yet been charged. (The owner, Greg Zappala, says he didn't know anything improper was going on, while a former co-owner claims he was a victim of extortion by the judges.) What's more, many prosecutors, public defenders and other court officials apparently turned a blind eye to the abuses, shocking parents who had expected a fine or probation and instead watched their children be dragged off into custody. When the mother of the 14-year-old arrested for stealing the loose change asked to hire an attorney, she was told by one defense counsel it would be a "waste of money" because the judges would not listen. Now that the scheme has been unearthed, some 5,000 kids have grounds for suing, and many have already joined a class action against the two judges, the center's owner and other defendants. In addition, many are attempting to have their records expunged, though their bad memories of the experience will never be erased. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)

As egregious as the case is, experts say it is all too indicative of a juvenile-justice system racked with abuses yet subject to far less scrutiny than the adult system it increasingly mirrors. The entire Texas juvenile-justice system had to be overhauled two years ago after it was discovered that kids were arbitrarily held years beyond their original sentence and that many were sexually abused. Recent studies have shown high recidivism rates from graduates of the private boot camps that were in vogue under then President Bill Clinton after he endorsed the experience as Governor of Arkansas. (Read "Boot Camps Take Another Hit.")

Nationwide, the system, which sends kids to a mix of large public "kiddie" prisons and smaller (but far more numerous) privately owned ones, handles more than 1.6 million juvenile cases a year; detentions have increased 44% from 1985 to 2002, the most recent year for which data are available. And that doesn't include the number of young offenders who bypass the juvenile system altogether. Every year, some 200,000 youths are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults, and on the first instance of trouble, often for relatively minor crimes, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice; those kids are 34% more likely to get into trouble again by committing new crimes, according to a government study.

Many advocates and academics argue that juveniles are not being given enough of a chance to turn their lives around after committing minor offenses. And officials at both the state and federal levels seem to be getting the message. Last summer, after reviewing a large swath of research literature, the Department of Justice concluded that "to best achieve reduction in recidivism, the overall number of juvenile offenders transferred to the criminal-justice system should be minimized." That came three years after the U.S. stopped executing minors, following a Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, that was largely based on new brain research showing that the full development of the frontal lobe, where rational judgments are made, does not occur until the early- to mid-20s. At the state level, Missouri is leading the country by phasing out its large juvenile-detention institutions in favor of smaller facilities, closer to kids' homes, that offer more specialized services, like mental-health and drug counseling and education. In the process, the state claims to have reduced recidivism rates for juvenile offenders to 10%, compared with a national rate of 40% to 50%. "We cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem of juvenile crime," says Shay Bilchik, director of Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, who served as Clinton's point person on juvenile issues at the Justice Department.

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