Locking up our children

Carol Rose and Amy Reichbach | 5/15/2008, 4:59 a.m.

“Although the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act requires that the Commonwealth determine why youth of color are overrepresented and develop and implement a plan to reduce that overrepresentation, Massachusetts has done neither.”

- Excerpted from the ACLU report “Locking Up Our Children: The Secure Detention of Massachusetts Youth After Arraignment and Before Adjudication,” released May 12, 2008

When Maria was 15, she was locked up for eight weeks, for allegedly bringing a fingernail file to school.

James R. was also 15 when he was locked up, allegedly for stealing a bus pass from another child.

They are just two of the hundreds of Massachusetts youth picked up each year for minor offenses and then held in a locked detention facility before they even get a trial.

James was detained because his family couldn’t afford $1,500 in bail. Maria was held because she had been raped by a family member prior to her arrest and could not return home safely. The Commonwealth had no other place for her to go.

Unfortunately, these stories are not isolated cases. A recent investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveals that hundreds of children who should be either at home awaiting trial or in our child welfare or mental health systems are instead being jailed.

According to the investigation — compiled in a report entitled “Locking Up Our Children: The Secure Detention of Massachusetts Youth After Arraignment and Before Adjudication,” released Monday — Massachusetts has one of the highest pre-trial lockup rates in the nation. Yet in nearly half of the cases, the youth being locked up are charged only with misdemeanors, and at least 80 percent of those who are locked up are released once their cases are resolved.

This overuse of pre-trial lockup disproportionately affects youth of color, who are overrepresented throughout the juvenile justice system. Minority youth account for 20 percent of all youth in Massachusetts, but nearly 60 percent of the 5,000 to 6,000 young people locked up after arrest and before trial, and 60 percent of roughly 1,100 youth committed to the state Department of Youth Services after trial.

So what happened to the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” for all these children? The law says that youth may be locked up before trial for only two reasons: either they are a danger to the community or they are a flight risk.

In practice, too many are being locked up for other reasons. Some, like Maria, are locked up because the Commonwealth lacks alternatives for children for whom it is unsafe to go home. Others are locked up because some judges and some parents want to “teach them a lesson.”

Unfortunately, the lessons that kids learn in lockup often are the wrong ones.

Studies show that locking up youth makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future. Juvenile detention also has been linked to depression, suicide, substance abuse and dropping out of school. The educational instruction offered in detention facilities often has no connection to the public school curriculum. It’s no wonder that so many never return to school and others drop out of school soon after their detention.

Locking up kids also costs Massachusetts taxpayers a lot of money. In 2006, it cost some $16,000 to detain a child for 16 days in a secure lockup. By comparison, it costs taxpayers less than $1,500 to provide a child permitted to remain home with six to eight weeks of supervision to ensure the child returns to court.

For the sake of our children and the safety of our communities, we can and must do better. To its credit, the Department of Youth Services is spearheading an initiative to develop alternatives to detention, and one such alternative is currently operating in Boston. But these starting efforts must be encouraged and expanded by our political leaders if they are to reach the hundreds of youth held in pre-trial detention throughout the state.

At the same time, judges must be encouraged to limit the use of detention as required by law, and defense attorneys must be trained to appeal excessive bail and to actively connect kids with community-based services.

For the sake of our children and the safety of our communities, it is time to invest our tax dollars in creating new ways to keep kids in school and out of lockup.

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Amy Reichbach is the organization’s racial justice advocate.