Investigation reveals widely uneven treatment and oversight of adolescents
nationwide in adult jails.
By Isaac Wolf Scripps Howard News Service
Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:40 a.m.
For thousands of teens accused of crimes, punishment precedes any
conviction in court. While awaiting trial and ostensibly presumed innocent,
they can be held for months or even years in county jails for -- and
sometimes with -- adult suspects.
Federal law aims to shield youths from extended detention and from physical
or psychological abuse by adult inmates. But the protection does not apply
to suspects 17 and younger sent to adult court to be tried for serious
offenses such as assault, rape or murder. Youth advocates say this
exemption amounts to a major loophole.
Such suspects -- roughly 5,600 at any given time in 2010, federal Bureau of
Justice Statistics data show -- lack that “sight and sound” protection.
More than 1,900 other youths -- charged with less-serious property or drug
crimes -- technically are covered because their cases remain in the
juvenile justice system. But they, too, sit in jail, sometimes because it’s
cheaper for cash-strapped counties to keep them there than in juvenile
facilities geared toward development and rehabilitation, a Scripps Howard
News Service investigation finds.
In jails intended for adults, young suspects face an elevated risk of
physical attacks, including sexual assault, research shows. Juvenile
inmates are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult jails than in
youth detention centers, according to data included in a 2007 Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention task force report. They’re also less likely
to get the supportive therapy, academics and social experiences that
adolescents need to become healthy, educated, productive members of society.
Owen Welty, for instance, was 13 when he was arrested in the shooting death
of his neighbor in rural southeastern Missouri. He spent 26 months in
several jails, usually housed with adult suspects. He was targeted for
physical attacks, including sexual assault, he said, and often went without
formal education, psychological counseling and peer interactions.
A St. Louis jury acquitted Owen in February 2009, at age 15. While
incarcerated, he fell three grades behind classmates. Now 18 and a high
school senior in Clay County, Ark., he has struggled to catch up
academically and to overcome flashbacks.
“It’s definitely not fair to anyone -- educationally, socially,
psychologically -- to put a 13- or 14-year-old with grown men,” said
Phyllis Morgan, Owen’s high school counselor.
The SHNS investigation reveals widely uneven treatment and oversight of
adolescents in adult jails. Among the findings:
• All but three states -- North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming --
permit juveniles to be housed in adult jails, the federal Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported in September.
Twenty-nine of these states exploit the loophole in the 1974 Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, allowing juveniles to mix with
grownup suspects instead of segregating them by “sight and sound.” The
remaining 18 states’ rules for segregating juveniles exceed the federal
• Budget pressures are pushing some youths accused of lesser crimes into
adult lockups even while their cases remain in the juvenile justice system.
Their numbers have doubled in recent years, from 1,009 in 2005 to 1,912 in
2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.
Florida passed a law in May enabling counties to send teenagers accused of
less-serious crimes in juvenile court to jails instead of youth detention
facilities. Costs drove the change, said Steve Casey, the executive
director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, whose members helped draft
Detaining an inmate in one of the state’s 26 juvenile facilities costs
counties roughly $280 a day, Casey said, while a jail costs $80. Expenses
vary by state. In Pierce County, Wash., juvenile detention costs have risen
more than five-fold since 2000, from $85 a day per resident to $455, a
September audit found.
Although federal rules permit only brief jail stays for youth offenders in
the juvenile justice system, regulations allow them to be held longer in
youth-only facilities located at adult jails, said John Wilson. He wrote
the U.S. Justice Department regulations on locked up juveniles, and has
since left for a position at the nonpartisan Tallahassee, Fla.-based
Institute for Intergovernmental Research.
• Deciding a young suspect’s fate takes far longer in the criminal justice
system. A case that would take 15 days in juvenile court easily could take
over a year in criminal court, said Ned Loughran, executive director of the
Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a nonprofit in Braintree,
• Insufficient data make it unclear how many jailed juveniles get convicted
or get released. The Justice Department reported in a September bulletin
how little is known about these youths: “To date, only 13 states publicly
report the total number of their transfers, and even fewer report offense
profiles, demographic characteristics or details regarding processing and
The Justice Department’s report noted that one in four youngsters in
California’s adult courts are acquitted or the charges against them are
dropped. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit
research group in Oakland, Calif., reported in May that about two of three
juveniles leave the Baltimore City Detention Center without a conviction in
Jeff Slowikowski, acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said he’s concerned about “any amount
of time that a juvenile is in an adult facility, not getting the adequate
services, away from education, not being able to get back within their own
community” -- especially if that juvenile is found not guilty.
Arguably, an adult jail can keep a juvenile closer to home, because there
are fewer youth detention centers than county lockups. Judges who send
youths to jail sometimes reason that young defendants pose a threat to
public safety and cannot be rehabilitated.
In his decision to move Owen Welty’s murder case to adult court, Judge Joe
Satterfield wrote that “protection of the community requires” the
13-year-old to be “prosecuted under general law.”
But one of Slowikowski’s predecessors, Shay Bilchik, contends that jailing
a juvenile before trial contradicts a principle of American jurisprudence
by presuming guilt, not innocence.
“This is a basic philosophical question: When we have juvenile courts, why
would we hold juveniles pending determination of guilt in an adult
facility?” asked Bilchik, who headed OJJDP in the Clinton administration
and now runs Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
Tough-on-crime measures arose after teen crime surged in the early 1990s.
It peaked at over 500 violent-crime arrests per 100,000 juveniles in 1994
and plunged to under 300 in 2008, OJJDP reports. But while the incidence of
crime has fallen, the number of juveniles in adult jails has held steady.
Since 2005, Colorado, Maine, Virginia and Pennsylvania have made it more
difficult to place youths in adult jails, said the Campaign for Youth
Justice, a Washington-based group that advocates keeping juveniles out of
Before Colorado passed such a law in 2009, the state’s system was “pretty
barbaric” in allowing excessive transfers, said Rep. Claire Levy, a
Democrat and the legislation’s sponsor.
Florida has gone the other way. It now allows counties to house juveniles
charged with relatively minor offenses in adult jails whose staff are
equipped with Tasers and pepper spray, items forbidden in juvenile
Opponents of Florida’s new law say adult jails are inherently more
dangerous, even if juvenile inmates are physically segregated from adults.
Youths in adult jails and prisons are “probably at the highest risk of all”
for sexual abuse, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported
Without adequate schooling and therapy, arrested teens are far less likely
to grow into productive adults, said Marty Beyer, a clinical psychologist
in Eugene, Ore., who has assessed hundreds of young suspects. Beyer said
those resources, cornerstones of juvenile detention programs, typically
aren’t available in adult jails.
Moving a juvenile into the adult criminal justice system -- the precursor
to a jail stay -- also makes the youngster more likely to reoffend,
contends Donna Bishop, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern
University in Boston.
“Transfer is more likely to aggravate recidivism than to stem it,”
according to a 2002 report Bishop co-authored, “Juvenile Transfers to
Criminal Court Study.”
Youngsters traditionally reach adult jail after a judge or district
attorney decides to prosecute in adult court. But that’s changing. In 2010,
a fourth of all youths in adult jails at a given time were held on juvenile
jurisdiction offenses, which tend to involve stolen property or illegal
Far too many juveniles are in the adult system, federal official
Slowikowski said in an interview. States “need to address protecting the
kids that are within their care,” he said.
Ronnie Welty, Owen’s dad, agrees. He’s still trying to understand how his
young son could have spent years locked up -- with adults.
“We are supposed to be the greatest country in the world,” he said. “How
can this happen to me and my family and my boy? It doesn’t make any sense.