Common sense says that juvenile criminal suspects should not be housed with adults.
There are the obvious dangers of beatings, sexual assault and informal but enforced slavery at the hands and fists of older inmates. But there is also the danger of juveniles 17 and younger ― psychologically susceptible despite their perhaps adult physical size ― coming to believe in might-makes-right as a social code.
In many jurisdictions, jails have no educational facilities for youths who otherwise would be in high school, or at least in an alternative school specializing in dealing with troublemakers.
Mixing youths with adults, especially without schooling and rehabilitation, can produce ill-educated, hardened criminals just waiting to happen. It leads to a documented cycle of recidivism, usually beginning soon after the youth's release. It's best to head off that cycle when a youth first enters the system.
Federal law aims to keep juveniles separated from adults, but an exception ― a loophole, if you will ― allows for juvenile offenders charged with serious offenses like murder, rape and assault to be sent to adult jails. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says roughly 5,600 were so incarcerated at any one time in 2010. Make no mistake: Many of these are dangerous thugs in the making.
All but three states ― North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming ― permit these juveniles to be locked up in adult jails. Twenty-nine states exploit the exception for serious crimes, and 18 states, to their credit, have rules exceeding the federal standards.
Another 1,900 youths, charged in the juvenile justice system typically for less serious drug and property crimes, were in adult jails often simply because it was cheaper for cash-strapped jurisdictions to keep them there. This number has doubled since 2005.
In a reporting package about juveniles held in adult jails, Scripps Howard News Service's Isaac Wolf shows that their confinement ― in terms of conditions and duration ― vary widely by state.
Much of the nation has a system of reform schools and juvenile detention centers. But they are expensive. In Florida, it costs $280 a day to house a youth compared to $80 a day for an adult.
Just as with state mental asylums, reformers argued that the mentally ill and juvenile offenders could be better handled back in their own communities, but in both cases the needed support services were never provided. The problem was dumped in the laps of the police and the courts.
Lumping juveniles in with adults only guarantees problems down the road. There is also the troubling constitutional-rights issue of holding juveniles, who have been charged but not tried, in adult facilities ― arguably cruel, unusual and unnecessary punishment absent a trial.
One measure of a society is its criminal justice system. Ours is falling short when it comes to juveniles routed into adult jails.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer of Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).