Testimony Before Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence

SPLC deputy legal director Sheila Bedi testified before a national task force about violence and abuse in the juvenile justice system.

Testimony given in Baltimore, Md.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) works for and with children who are caught up in juvenile justice systems throughout the Deep South. For poor children of color, there are many paths into a juvenile prison. Some of the youth we work with are imprisoned because they live with mental illness—and families are often counseled that the best way to obtain “treatment” is to file charges against a child and get him involved in the juvenile justice system. Others enter the system because schools— now more than ever—rely on the court system to mete out school discipline. Zero tolerance policies funnel children into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses—like school yard fights and disruptive classroom behavior. An overwhelming number of youth involved with the juvenile justice system have had contact with the child welfare system and have lived through abuse and trauma. We have worked with a number of youth who end up in the juvenile justice system because there is simply no place for them in the foster care system. And of course, some youth do end up in the juvenile justice because they have made poor life decisions.

Despite common perception and the images frequently portrayed by the media, the vast majority of children who live behind bars in this country have committed non-violent offenses—often property or drug crimes.1That’s a distributing fact—as a country we spend millions of dollars annually imprisoning children for relatively minor offenses. But what is even more devastating is the violence, abuse and trauma that is so often inflicted upon our children once they enter the juvenile justice system. There’s no dollar value we can place on the thousands of young lives that have been altered forever as a result of the abuse they experience inside juvenile prisons and jails.

Here are just a few examples of the violence and abuse endured by the imprisoned children:

  • In March 2009, correctional officers brutally assaulted a seventeen year old who was handcuffed the entire time. The staff members stripped the youth naked locked him in a cell for 23 hours a day—and then beat him when he requested mental health services.2
  • In May 2007, a sixteen year old girl with a history of sexual abuse was left alone with a staff member who was under investigation for a previous incident of abuse. The staff member sexually abused the young woman—and three other youth before he was finally removed from his position. Staff at the same facility forced seven girls—all of whom lived with mental health issues and most of whom had a history of sexual abuse to wear shackles every day, all day for over one month.3
  • In October 2009, a detention center implemented a policy of locking children in their cells for 23 hours a day. Youth who came to the front of their cells to request water or access to the bathroom were regularly sprayed in the face with mace.4
  • In June 2010, staff at a juvenile detention center physically assaulted a fifteen year old boy and then handcuffed and shackled him to a wooden chair and left him unsupervised in his cell for hours at a county-run juvenile detention center in Mississippi.5
  • In December 2010, a sixteen year old boy was sexually assaulted by a staff member in a privately ran Florida youth prison.6
  • In one particularly brutal and corrupt private, for-profit prison that houses young men ages 13-22 who were tried and convicted as adults, young men endure particularly unspeakable abuses. Staff physically assault youth and sexually abuse them. Youth who are handcuffed and defenseless have been kicked, punched, and beaten all over their bodies. Some youth are stripped naked and held in isolation for weeks at a time. Young men with serious health needs languish without required medical care—sometimes risking death or permanent injury. Many youth are denied the most basic educational services. There have been three suicides, a number of rapes, and staff instigated youth-on-youth assaults that have left youth with permanent injuries including one youth who will live with permanent brain damage for the rest of his life.7

While these examples occurred in the Deep South, abusive prison conditions are not limited to one region of the country. In fact, studies have shown that abuse in juvenile facilities is practically endemic. In nearly half of the states, there are documented instances of abusive and violent conditions in juvenile facilities since 2000.8

In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a survey that included 36, 650 youth detained in large juvenile corrections facilities and found that 12% of the youth had been sexually assaulted by staff or other youth during the previous year.9 According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, since 1970, there have been 57 lawsuits in 33 states and the District of Columbia where courts have ordered specific remedies and action by detention centers to address unconstitutional and abusive conditions. Fifty-two of those lawsuits alleged physical and sexual abuse by staff, improper and abusive use of isolation and restraints, and a failure to protect youth from harm.10 The Associated Press conducted a national survey and requested data from each state agency that is responsible for overseeing juvenile detention centers, and found that between Jan 1, 2004 and 2007, there were 13, 000 reports of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by staff members at facilities across the country.11

The Children Most Likely To Endure Abusive Prisons And Jails

Children who commit low level offenses

The kinds of abusive conditions imprisoned children must frequently endure would be unconscionable even for people convicted of serious crimes. But the reality is that most of the imprisoned children who live through a sexual assault, a beat down, and prolonged isolation are locked up for very minor offenses. The newest Annie E. Casey publication highlights the fact that a large percentage of youth held in secure detention do not pose a significant risk to public safety.12 In 2007, only 12% of juvenile offenders who were placed in secure detention were charged with the most serious violent offenses (murder, rape, arson, or aggravated assault).13 In some states, as many as 20-30% of youth are incarcerated for violating the terms of their probation or some other condition of aftercare, not for committing a new offense.14

Children of color

Children of color children are dramatically over-represented in juvenile justice systems across the country. Youth of color comprise 41% of the population, but represent 69% of youth who are detained.15 This overrepresentation is not because youth of color commit more crimes than white youth.  A 2005 study revealed that although White, Black, and Latino youth reported relatively similar rates of drug dealing, white youth comprised 35% of youth detained for drug offenses while youth of comprised 65% of the confined population.16 Other data supports the idea that youth of color do not engage in more delinquent behavior than their white counterparts. In 2007, 38% of property crimes were committed by white youth and 38% were also committed by Black youth. Further, Black youth committed 37% of the technical violations and white youth committed 34% of the technical violations.

This data suggests that state juvenile justice systems that are rife with abuse and violence target Black and Brown youth. Black and Brown youth enter the juvenile justice system—often for non-violent offenses—and are too frequently subject to brutal violence. They are then, eventually, released into their home communities. This is why the violence and abuses suffered by children caught up in our juvenile justice systems affects all of us.

Children living with mental illness

It is not just youth of color who are disproportionately caught up in the juvenile justice system. Researchers estimate that between 65 to 75 percent of youth in juvenile detention have multiple mental health diagnoses.17 Mental health services in many juvenile justice systems are notoriously terrible—there are documented incidents of children being denied mental health services all together or being overly medicated. Many of these children enter the juvenile justice system as a consequence for manifestations of their mental illnesses.

Girls and young women

Girls in the juvenile justice system are an extremely incredible vulnerable population for several reasons. Tragically, many of the girls involved in the juvenile justice system have been victims of sexual abuse. Research indicates that girls in the juvenile justice system are three times more likely than their male counterparts to have been victims of sexual abuse.18 Based on a report published by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 64% of incarcerated girls reported experiencing abuse prior to their confinement.19 Girls enter the juvenile justice system at a younger age than boys; over 40% of girls who are confined in correctional facilities are under 16 years of age.20 Statistics estimate that 10% of girls who are incarcerated are pregnant and 30% already have children.21

LGBT Youth

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) youth are also over-represented in the juvenile justice system—often for reasons related to their orientation. LGBT youth often find themselves disconnected from their families after they come out and are forced to live on the streets. This family disconnection is often a direct path to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Some LGBT youth find themselves imprisoned because a school official or a judge took offense with their gender expression, hairstyle or choice of clothing.22 Other LGBT youth end up in the system after defending themselves against pervasive bullying at school and in their communities. Because of the lack of understanding of the special needs of LGBT youth, these youth are particularly vulnerable once incarcerated. In a report published by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, youth reported that they are asked to perform sexual acts by other youth and threatened with violence if they refuse.23 In many instances, LGBT youth receive additional charges while incarcerated because they are defending themselves against other youth who are bullying or attempting to physically and/or sexually assault them.24 The Southern Poverty Law Center has represented many youth who identify as LGBT (or who are perceived as LGBT) and who have endured brutal sexual violence while imprisoned.

Children housed in the adult criminal justice system

The juvenile justice system was initially created to protect children from the harsh, punitive environment of the adult criminal system. It was designed to rehabilitate youth and recognized that youth are still developing and should be treated differently than adults.25 In response to shifting political winds, many states began to reverse this trend in the 1990’s and began to try youth as adults for certain crimes. The consequences of this policy shift have had a devastating affect on children and on their communities. Youth who are tried as adults are often placed in adult jails where they are at an increased risk of assault or other abuse. Federal law requires strict sight and sound separation for youth in the juvenile justice system from adult offenders, but unfortunately these protections do not extend to youth who are prosecuted in adult court.26 As a result, youth who are in the adult criminal justice system are among those most likely to endure violence and abuse while imprisoned or detained.

According to BJS statistics, 21% and 13% of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 and 2006 respectively, were youth under the age of 18 (surprisingly high since only 1% of jail inmates are juveniles).27 These youth are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility.28 The situation for youth held in adult prisons is no less dire; Deborah LaBelle, an attorney working with over 400 youth serving sentences of life without possibility of parole found that 80% of the youth had been sexually assaulted within the first year of their incarceration.29 The Southern Poverty Law Center represents a putative class of young men who were tried and convicted as adults and who are serving time in a privately run prison, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. The 1,200 young men who are currently imprisoned there live in barbaric, unconstitutional conditions. As a result of these conditions, many youth have suffered physical injuries—some permanent. Three youth have lost their lives in this facility over the past three years. Countless others endure daily threats to their safety as a result of the prison’s dangerously deficient security policies and the abusive prison guards who torment the youth in their custody. This is just one example of the violence endured by children who are tried as adults throughout the country.

Research shows that young people who are kept in the juvenile justice system are less likely to reoffend than young people who are transferred into the adult system. According to both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34% more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crime.30

There is one final characteristic that many youth involved with the juvenile justice system share—these youth are accused of delinquent offenses, but far too often they are also victims themselves. Thirty-four percent of adolescents in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event; however, for youth who are entering the juvenile justice system, 75 to 93 percent of youth have experienced a traumatic event.31 Trauma not only includes physical and sexual abuse; it also encompasses youth who have been victims of crimes. Studies indicate that people of color, people who grow up in single parent households, people who live in urban areas are more likely to be victimized.32 A study of youth confined at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago revealed that over 50% of the youth had experienced more than 6 traumatic events prior to their confinement.33 Youth who experience maltreatment are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system than youth who do not experience child abuse or neglect. Two research studies examined the connection between child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency; researchers found that among males who experienced some form of maltreatment before the age of 12, 50 to 79 percent became involved in serious delinquent behavior.34 A study conducted by the Child Welfare League of America in Sacramento County California examined arrest rates of youth 9-12 years of age and found that youth in that age range were 67 times more likely than their peers who had no contact with the child welfare system to be arrested.35

The sad reality is that many of these children enter an unbreakable cycle of violence. They endure violence and abuse in their communities, often act out as a result and are sent to juvenile facilities where the violence, abuse and isolation they experience often escalates. They are released home and the cycle continues.

Imprisoning children while risking public safety

Supposedly, children are sent to prison in an effort to reduce crime and violence in our community. But in reality, the act of imprisoning a child often creates more crime and violence—both inside juvenile prisons and in our communities once children are released from abusive facilities. Based on recidivism rates, secure confinement is an ineffective way to rehabilitate and treat juvenile offenders. The Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report that combined recidivism reports from numerous states and the research clearly indicates that secure confinement is not effectively rehabilitating youth.36

  • Studies showed that 70-80% youth released from correctional facilities were rearrested within 2-3 years.
  • The research also indicated that a significant percentage of youth who were released from juvenile detention centers and/or training schools were adjudicated delinquent for new offenses—38-58% two years after release and 45-72% three years after release.
  • Two years after release, 18-46% of youth are re-incarcerated for new charges and three years after release that figure increases to 26-62% of youth are re-incarcerated.37

In sharp contrast, a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that alternatives to detention can reduce recidivism by up to 22%. For instance, restorative justice for low-risk juveniles reduced recidivism by 8.7%, multi-systemic therapy reduced recidivism by 10.5% and multidimensional treatment foster care reduced recidivism by 22%.38


In conclusion, I’d like to thank the Task Force for the opportunity to testify. I urge the Task Force to recognize that violence inside this nation’s juvenile prisons and jails and the violence affecting children who are imprisoned in adult correctional facility is a national crisis that resounds far beyond the prison walls into all of our communities.

Recommendations for Congress

Reauthorize and Strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act  Congress should use the reauthorization of the JJDPA as an opportunity to strengthen accountability for federal spending, help States protect public safety, hold delinquent youth accountable, and provide rehabilitation services to youth to prevent future crime. Congress should pass a JJDPA reauthorization bill that will:

  • Extend the Jail Removal and Sight and Sound separation core protections to all youth under the age of 18 held pretrial, whether charged in juvenile or adult court.
  • Strengthen the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) core protection by requiring States to take concrete steps to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.
  • Strengthen the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) core protection, which prohibits the locked detention of status offenders, by removing the valid court order (VCO) and Interstate Compact exceptions.
  • Provide safe and humane conditions of confinement for youth in State or local custody by prohibiting use of JJDPA funds for dangerous practices and encouraging States to adopt best practices and standards to eliminate dangerous practices and unnecessary isolation.
  • Provide a research-based continuum of mental health and substance abuse services to meet unmet needs of court involved youth and their families, including diversion and reentry services.
  • Assist States in compliance with the JJDPA by establishing incentive grants to encourage States to adopt evidence-based and/or promising practices that improve outcomes for youth and their communities. For States that are deemed to be out of compliance with any of the core protections, Congress should require that any JJDPA funds withheld for non-compliance are set aside and made available to those States as improvement grants to help them with those particular protections.

Ensure that PREA Implementation Addresses the Needs of Detained Youth
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) was passed in recognition of the serious crisis of rampant sexual abuse in corrections and detention facilities nationwide. Youth are especially vulnerable to this abuse, but the bulk of attention and resources devoted to PREA has focused on adult prisons and jails. PREA appropriations have never reached the levels approved by Congress when the law passed. As a result of limited funding, the State grant program – a key component in the statute – has been defunct since FY 2006. Congress should provide sufficient appropriations to implement PREA, including funds dedicated to reducing the sexual abuse of youth in secure facilities and in community corrections.

Extend JJDPA Protections to Keep Youth Out of Adult Facilities
Congress should amend the JJDPA to extend the Jail Removal and Sight and Sound protections of the Act to all youth, excluding those awaiting trial in juvenile or adult court. In the limited exceptions allowed under the JJDPA where youth can be held in adult facilities, they should have no sight or sound contact with adult inmates. Congress should also revise the definition of an “adult inmate” to codify the recent guidance issued by OJJDP. This guidance recommends excluding youth who, at the time of the offense, were younger than age 18 and who have not yet reached the allowable age to be held at a juvenile facility under State law.

Raise the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction
In accordance with the recommendations of the Federal Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice and the Federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Congress should encourage States that have not set the age of adulthood at 18 at the time of the commission of a crime to do so, and provide financial incentives. Further, Congress should encourage States to raise the extended age of juvenile court jurisdiction to at least the age of 21.

Recommendations for State and Local Officials

Systemically reduce the number of children imprisoned by adopting proven data driven reforms that can save jurisdictions money, increase public safety and better serve children and communities.

The Annie E. Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) helps jurisdictions develop objective admissions criteria that reduce inappropriate detention, ensuring that beds are available for youth who truly need to be confined. Other core JDAI strategies include collecting standardized data to help officials monitor problems and develop solutions, and creating effective alternatives to secure detention that provide youth with the supervision and services they need. With reform efforts underway in in 35 states and DC, JDAI is active in more than 125 sites. By the end of 2012, JDAI is expected to expand to over 80% of the states and in 160 localities. In its most successful sites, JDAI has dramatically reduced detention populations—in some cases up to 65 percent--while simultaneously improving public safety.

Develop a proven continuum of alternatives to imprisonment for children using the Youth Development Approach:39

  • Youth are viewed as a valued and respected asset to society;
  • Policies and programs focus on the evolving developmental needs and tasks of adolescents, and involve youth as partners rather than client
  • Families, schools and communities are engaged in developing environments that supprt youth;
  • Adolescents are involved in activities that enhance their competence, connections, charater, confidence and contribution to society;
    • Adolescents are provided an opportunity to experiment in a safe environment and to develop positive social values and norms; and
    • Adolescents are engaged in activities that promote self-understanding, self-worth and a sense of belonging and resiliency.

An example of youth development programming is the Youth Advocate Program (YAP): The purpose of YAP is to provide rehabilitative service to youth and their families. A fundamental tenet of YAP is to provide individualized service plans for each youth based on his or her interests, needs, and strengths. The core principles of YAP include cultural competence, partnership with parents, focus on strengths, teamwork, community-based care, unconditional caring, giving back, and corporate and clinical integrity.40

End the practice of trying children as adults

All States need to implement legislative reform that would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.41

There should be immediate action to ban youth from being placed in adult jails and ensure that youth who have been charged as adults receive age appropriate services, including mental health treatment, education, and adequate nutrition.42

Pro-actively incorporate families and communities into the rehabilitative process

Family involvement is a critical part of rehabilitation, but there are several barriers to family involvement with youth who are incarcerated. The distance of state training schools and regional facilities make it difficult for youth’s families to visit regularly. Some families feel their lack of knowledge of the system and lack of resources prevent their meaningful involvement with their child during confinement.43

Parents should be involved in the treatment process while their child is incarcerated in order to better support their child when he or she is living back in the community. It is ideal for parents to be involved prior to a child’s release so that they are able to benefit from the supports and rehabilitative programming offered to their child.44

Develop strong, independent oversight for all prison, jails and other juvenile justice facilities that house children

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention sets forth the components of an effective independent monitoring system. The independent monitoring system should be (1) fully autonomous; (2) supported by clear statutory authority to conduct the investigation and gather relevant information; (3) given unrestricted access to facilities, records, and residents; (4) provided with adequate funding for sufficient staff and resources to fulfill responsibilities; and (5) staffed with qualified individuals who have expertise on standards of conditions in the facilities and the legal rights of youth.45


1 Justice Policy Institute, The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense, 1, 3 (2009),  [hereinafter Costs of Confinement].

2  Compl. at ¶ 19, D.W. et al. v. Harrison County, Mississippi, (No. 1:09 Civ. 267) (Apr. 20, 2009).

3  Second Amend. Compl. at ¶¶ 40-54, J.A. et al. v. Barbour, et al., (No. 3:07 Civ. 394) (Jan. 17, 2008).

4 Amend. Compl, at ¶ 36, E.W. et al. v. Lauderdale County, Mississippi, (No. 4:09 Civ. 137) (Nov. 12, 2009).

5 Compl. at ¶  21, M.T. et al. v. Forrest County, Mississippi, (No. 2:11 Civ. 91) (Apr. 20, 2011).

6 Compl. at ¶¶ 50-55, D.L. et al. v. Slattery et al., (No. 0:10 Civ. 61902) (Oct. 8, 2010). 

7 Compl. at ¶¶ 35- 225 , C.B. et al. v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, et al., (No. 3:10 Civ. 663) (Nov. 16, 2010).

8 Richard A. Mendel, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, 1, 7 (2011) .  [hereinafter No Place for Kids]

Id. at 6-7.

10 Id. at 5.

11 Holbrook Mohr, 13K Claims of Abuse in Juvenile Detention Since ’04, USA TODAY, Mar. 2, 2008.

12 No Place for Kids, supra note 9, at 13.

13 Id. at 13.

14 Id. at 15.

15 Annie E. Casey Foundation, Detention Reform Brief No. 3, Detention Reform: An Effective Approach to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice, 1 (2009)

16 Id. at 2.

17 Justice Policy Institute, Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense 1, 5 (2010),  [hereinafter Invisible Wounds].

18 National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Center for Girls and Young Women, Getting the Facts Straight about Girls in the Juvenile Justice System 1,  8 (2009), http://www.justiceforallgirls.org/advocacy/CenterFactSheet.pdf.

19 National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Center for Girls and Young Women, Girls DO Matter 1, 2.

20 Id.

21 Id.

22 Invisible Wounds, supra note 18, at 19.

24 Id.

26 Campaign for Youth Justice, The Consequences aren’t Minor: The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform 1, 8  (2007).

27 A.J. Beck, P.M. Harrison & D.B. Adams, Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007); A.J. Beck, P.M. Harrison, D.B. Adams,  Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2006).

28 McGowan, A., Hahn, R., et.al., Effects on Violence and Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles from the Juvenile Justice System to the Adult Justice System: A Systematic Review. 32 American Journal of Preventative Medicine, No.4 Supplement, 2007 at  S7-S28.

29 Testimony of LaBelle, D. (2005, August 19). At Risk: Sexual Abuse and Vulnerable Groups Behind Bars (p. 33). San Fran­cisco: National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Public Hearing.

30 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System: A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. MMWR 2007; 56 No. RR-9 (2007); Richard E. Redding, Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency?, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2010). 

31 Invisible Wounds, supra note 18, at 5.  

32 Id. at 3.

33 Id. at 5.

34 Id.

35 Katherine Wingfield & Rodney Albert, Breaking the Link Between Child Maltreatment and Juvenile Delinquency, Children’s Voice, March  2001.

36 No Place for Kids, supra note 9, at 10.

37 These figures exclude Missouri because Missouri closed its training schools and uses small “treatment-oriented” facilities to treat juvenile offenders. It is important to note that in Missouri the re-incarceration rate three years after release is only 16.2 %.

38 Costs of Confinement, supra note 2, at 12.

39 Recommendations adopted from the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC) http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/NJJDPC_Opportunities_for_Congress_Final.pdf; Oregon Commission on Children and Families, Best Practices Positive Youth Development.

40 See http://www.yapinc.org/core-principles/ for more information about the Youth Advocate Program

41 Campaign for Youth Justice, supra note 27, at 20.

42 Id.

44 Lili Garfinkel, Improving Family Involvement for Juvenile Offenders with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders and Related Disabilities, 36 Behavioral Disorders 52, 56 (2003).

45 Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Independent monitoring systems for juvenile facilities 1, 1-2 (2010)