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Rushing to lock up kids is bad social and fiscal policy

Robin L. Dahlberg

Rushing to lock up kids is bad social and fiscal policy

Late one afternoon in October, Juan, a 15-year-old sophomore at an Essex County high school, failed to return home from school. His mother, Gloria, started calling his friends to find out where he was.

It didn’t take long for her to discover that he was at the police station. He had been arrested for hanging out with his friends on the street and accused of trespassing on school property, despite the fact that he was more than a block away from school at the time.

Although Gloria informed the arresting officers that she was ready to post bail on her son’s behalf, she was told that Juan would be detained overnight. He was charged only with a low-level misdemeanor, he was not a flight risk, he posed no danger to the community, and his mother would assure his return to court. Yet the local probation officer inexplicably wanted to hold Juan in a locked-down, hardware-secure juvenile detention facility until he could be arraigned in front of a juvenile court judge the next day.

At no point was Gloria permitted to make a case for his release before a judge. Although children have the same right to bail as adults under Massachusetts state law, the police officers who arrested Juan failed to notify a bail magistrate of Juan’s arrest.

Unfortunately, Juan’s story is not unique. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts recently released a report revealing that hundreds of youth are detained by police and probation officers every year — in violation of their right to bail — in unlicensed, locked-down detention facilities, often for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety.

The majority of securely detained youth are, like Juan, youth of color. Although youth of color comprise between 20 percent and 25 percent of all adolescents in the Commonwealth, they account for more than 60 percent of the children who are incarcerated between the time they are arrested and arraigned in a court of law.

Locking up children who are neither flight risks nor dangers to their communities makes no sense. It compromises public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars and erodes public confidence in the juvenile justice system.

National research demonstrates that not only does secure detention not deter children from engaging in future criminal activity, but it actually increases the likelihood that they will. Among other things, it exacerbates behavioral problems, mental health issues and educational difficulties.

The research also demonstrates that detention is significantly more expensive than community-based programs designed with the intent of supporting at-risk children at home. Juan’s one-night stay in the Essex County Jail cost the Commonwealth approximately $600 — about twice the cost of a room at Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel and about five times the cost of a community-based program.

Lastly, the failure of police and probation officers to articulate adequately their reasons for detaining children of color often creates a presumption that a child’s skin color is the predominant factor in the detention decision-making process. That perception, in turn, serves to undermine the legitimacy of the entire juvenile justice system.

Massachusetts has already taken some important steps toward limiting the use of pre-trial juvenile lockups. The Commonwealth’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee has publicly announced that one of its priorities is reducing the number of youth of color in detention facilities. The state Department of Youth Services is spearheading an effort supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop alternatives to juvenile detention.

But we must do much more. The Commonwealth must articulate criteria for locking up youth who have been arrested and, in so doing, limit secure detention to only those youth who are high risks for re-offending or failing to reappear in court if released.

It must educate police officers, probation officers and the juvenile courts about the criteria and hold them accountable for detention decisions that do not meet these standards. And the Commonwealth must take steps to ensure that all detention facilities meet requirements imposed by state law. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we do right by our kids — both for their sake and ours.

Robin L. Dahlberg is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program in New York City and the primary author of “A Looming Crisis: The Secure Detention of Youth After Arrest and Before Arraignment in Facilities Administered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.” The full report is available on the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Web site at