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Analysis: Juvenile detention overused?

CHICAGO, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- On any given day nearly 28,000 children, most under 15 years old, are incarcerated in a secure detention facility in the United States -- a 72-percent increase since 1993 despite two decades of declining juvenile crime rates.

There's no argument detention is needed for offenders likely to commit another crime or fail to appear in court if released. Today's violent offenders are not the juvenile delinquents of old.

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But what should be done with non-violent boys and girls, most not convicted of any crime, who pose minimal danger to themselves or others? While there are public safety issues, an abused or neglected child detained for truancy, a curfew violation or sneaking alcohol, tobacco or a marijuana cigarette is not a murderer.

Experts say keep them away from the hardcore criminals.

"It isn't a matter of being tough on crime. It's a matter of being smart on crime," said David Doi, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

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Property crimes top the list of youth offenses (26 percent), followed by probation or parole violations (24 percent) and drugs (9 percent). The number of children held for drug offenses rose 62 percent in the 1990s.

"When you talk to judges, prosecutors or other juvenile justice professionals, many of them say things like, 'We locked him up for his own good,' or 'We locked him up because his parents weren't available,' And, 'We locked him up to get a mental health assessment.' But none of these reasons are reflected in statute or professional standards," said Bart Lubow, senior director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

A study by Northwestern University psychiatry Professor Linda Teplin found more than 60 percent of boys and more than 70 percent of girls in juvenile detention centers had one or more emotional disorders.

About 60 percent had behavioral or mental health issues; nearly seven in 10 substance abuse problems.

"It's clear from Linda's work that the juvenile detention system has become the dumping ground for kids with mental needs," said Mike Mahoney of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative.

Too often non-violent children from dysfunctional families are locked away while awaiting trial, according to the coalition's national report "Unlocking the Future" released Wednesday at the Westside Association for Community Action.

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The report contends detention has become an automatic reflex for courts dealing with youth charged with offenses to the detriment of non-dangerous minors.

Some spend a few days in custody and are released to family. Others are held for weeks often because there's no responsible adult to care for them or because family members have given up and won't let them return home.

Who decides who gets locked up, and for how long, varies widely from state to state and county to county.

Some law enforcement officials regard juvenile incarceration as "shock therapy" to scare non-violent offenders straight by teaching them a lesson. In some areas there are few alternatives to detention centers.

The report says children, including a disproportionately high number of at-risk minority youth, are hidden in the juvenile justice closet because authorities don't know what to do with them.

"An unstated reason for detaining youngsters, which operates more often than most juvenile officials would like to admit, is that those in charge don't know what else to do with them," the report said.

Between 300,000 and 600,000 youth cycle in and out juvenile detention facilities in a year -- 80 percent minority children -- and most are accused of minor offenses.

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Lubow blamed drug laws for higher detention rates of minority youth. Although statistically drug use is greater in majority communities, drug sales tend to be conducted in open air street environments in poor minority communities.

"The war on drugs is partly responsible for the disparity," he told United Press International.

Doi said there should be an objective standard to determine treatment of violent and non-violent offenders, something that does not exist currently.

The 1997 Census of Juvenile in Residential Placement found 70 percent of juveniles spent one week in custody, 50 percent at least 15 days, 28 percent a month, 14 percent two months and 10 percent at least 90 days. Incarceration was much longer for youths awaiting trial as adults.

Nearly half of the 39,100 status offenders held in secure detention each year were children charged with offenses that would not be considered crimes if committed by adults. Half those cases were runaways.

"The majority of detained youth are not the older, violent offenders that the public assumes are under lock and key. Many detained youth are quite young. More than half are aged 15 or younger and a third are aged 14 or younger. Nearly 70 percent are held for nonviolent offenses," according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

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The National Juvenile Detention Association and Youth Law Center says overcrowding in often chaotic juvenile detention centers can endanger a child's health and feed anger, depression, frustration, risk of suicide, stress-related injury and psychiatric problems.

Detention is expensive.

It cost taxpayers an average $36,487 to provide one bed in a juvenile detention facility for a year. Expanding existing facilities can cost $100,000 to $150,000 per bed.

Nationwide, the cost of detaining a youth ranged from $60 to more than $300 a day. Keeping a youth in a New York City detention center cost $358 a day in 2001, compared to $16 to $24 a day for alternatives.

The report said lower cost alternatives such as better mental health assessment and treatment would save millions by keeping children out of detention.

Avoiding punitive detention, reformers say, helps cut the recidivism rate and fosters trusting relationships between a child and their school, family and community.

"Leaders in juvenile justice and political leadership are finally beginning to discover that the costs continue to rise for secure detention and, in many cases, there is little return on the investment," said Earl Dunlap, executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association. "There is a strong case for the development of less costly alternatives and for rethinking detention as a process as opposed to a place."

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Cook County, the most populous county in Illinois, places more than 90 percent of youth in community-based programs aimed at keeping them in school and arrest-free.

The cost of keeping a youth in secure detention was $115 a day. The cost of one youth in a reporting center $33 a day.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group named after United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey's mother, made about $3 million in grants in the mid-1990s to community and faith-based groups to provide alternatives to incarceration.

Alternatives ranged from one-on-one counseling by social workers and teachers, screening by mental health experts, home confinement, electronic monitoring, day/evening reporting centers and short-term 24/7 supervision in safe temporary residences.

The county continued funding of the successful programs.

Today, an average of 445 Chicago-area children are confined in secure juvenile detention daily, slightly more than half the average 848 children detained daily in 1996.

"Eventually we're going to have to have a shift to state funding, or maybe a realignment of state funding," said Mahoney, former vice chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

Doi said funding for the federal juvenile justice block grant program took a tremendous hit, dropping from $190 million in 2003 to $60 million. The program was funded at $250 million in 2000.

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The Coalition For Juvenile Justice called on Congress, state and local policymakers to support policies and funding for programs that can keep non-violent youth out of secure detention.

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