The juvenile-justice crisis in America can be illustrated by the recent Dickens-like scandal uncovered in Pennsylvania, where two judges ruling over juvenile courts were found to be taking kickbacks in exchange for committing thousands of juveniles into privately owned facilities. Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan took over a million dollars each to deliver “justice.” Many children with minor offenses were sentenced for years in private correctional facilities, without legal representation; one child spent a year in a center for stealing a bit of change. It took a constitutional challenge to set him free. Over 5,000 youths were affected by this scheme, and it took a lot of work to set them free.
This travesty of justice was a conspiracy involving the judges, the owners of the detection facilities, prosecuting attorneys, and others in the chain of “justice” that looked the other way. But although the two judges have been charged and sentenced, the owners of PA Child Care, the privately owned detection facility, have yet to be charged—the current owner “knew nothing,” and the former owner claims to have been extorted by the judges.
Of course, not all states have such nightmarish juvenile-justice systems, but the reality is that the majority of these so-called juvenile “justice” systems are broken. Part of the problem is the lack of an oversight system that leads to the abuse of justice. Another juvenile-system system that was run on a medieval concept was that of Texas, where children were arbitrarily thrown in jail and left in there forgotten for years. It should come as no surprise that the recidivism rate of juveniles who experience this sort of treatment is high, as was that in the private boot camps of Arkansas.
But what about the rest of the country? Most states have a juvenile-system that combines state-run and private-run detention. The privately run facilities are much smaller, but far more numerous and handle the majority of juvenile cases. There are also many youth that are tried in adult courts and serve time in adult jails. Recidivism is rampant within this group too.
States are beginning to notice that the system is broken but no one knows how to fix it. What we do know, is that juvenile delinquents need more support to help them turn their lives around and that more community involvement is necessary. Missouri is in the process of getting rid of all of its large detention facilities in favor of smaller more manageable detention centers. The state also plans to increase support programs within the community to reduce the rate of recidivism.
However, what is really needed across the board, are stronger oversight, strict guidelines, and better training of the personnel that run these facilities. In Mississippi, the guards receive no training before being unleashed into the unsuspecting detention center population .
Another solution is to concentrate on the 5% of juvenile delinquents who pose a real threat to society and expand rehabilitation for the rest. Most juveniles that end up in correctional facilities are in dire need of mental health and drug rehabilitation, as well as education and training.Yet another solution would be to reexamine the juvenile system from the ground level up and reevaluate its laws and provide legal counsel for juvenile offenders. Many juvenile offenders end up in correctional facilities for relatively minor crimes. Had they had legal counsel they would have received probation.