01/28/2010

It's Time to Step Up Enforcement of Children's Rights

After a drastic decline in civil rights enforcement by the U.S. Justice Department over much of the past decade, President Obama's declaration during last night's State of the Union Address that his administration is "once again prosecuting civil rights violations" is a promising sign.

We'd like to remind the president of one area that often gets overlooked — the responsibility to protect the rights of our most vulnerable children.

Across America, countless schoolchildren are being denied educational opportunities because of overly punitive, zero-tolerance policies that exclude them from the classroom and increase the odds they will drop out of school and enter the criminal justice system.

These children are disproportionately African American and Latino. Children with disabilities also are far more likely to be thrown out of the classroom — even while many schools ignore their legal obligation to provide the special services these children need to learn and succeed.

Tens of thousands of children each year are being arrested in school for petty misbehavior and routed into the juvenile justice system, where many are abused in brutal facilities that fail to provide rehabilitative and mental health services.

In fact, in a special report issued earlier this month, the Justice Department said that one in eight youths imprisoned in state, local or privately run correctional facilities have been raped or otherwise victimized sexually while in custody. That's a shocking statistic, one that should offend every American's sense of justice. But it doesn't even begin to capture the true scope of the violence and neglect suffered by children behind bars, including the thousands of children who are sentenced to serve in dangerous adult prisons.

Justice Department research shows that youths imprisoned with adults are eight times more likely to commit suicide than those held in juvenile facilities, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, three times more likely to be assaulted by prison staff and 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon.

In another report issued by the Bush administration, the Justice Department noted that six independent large-scale studies found "higher recidivism rates among juveniles convicted for violent offense in criminal court when compared with similar offenders retained in juvenile court." The same report found that juveniles transferred into the adult system were significantly more likely to re-offend than juveniles who remain within the juvenile system.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations are taking action — filing complaints against negligent school districts and suing state and local governments that operate abusive detention centers.

But federal action is urgently needed to stop this unfolding civil rights crisis. A commitment by the Justice Department to crack down on these abuses would be a good place to start.

J. Richard Cohen
President