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Chapter1: Introduction

Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails.
A National Assessment
By James Austin Ph.D., 
Kelly Dedel Johnson, 
Ph.D., Maria Gregoriou, M.A.

October 2000

GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications (
Published On: June 10, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001

Chapter 1:  Introduction

Background to the Study The development of a distinct justice system tailored to recognize the mitigating factors associated with juvenile crime is recognized as one of the most progressive developments in the evolution of criminal justice in the United States. Prior to the 20th century, no formal differentiation had been made between society's response to crimes committed by juveniles and its response to crimes committed by adults. Beginning in Illinois in 1899, juvenile court systems were instituted throughout the United States to place greater emphasis on the welfare and rehabilitation of youth in the justice system. Specialized detention centers, training schools, and youth centers were developed to confine and treat delinquent youth apart from adult offenders. These facilities were to provide a rehabilitative environment for addressing the educational, psychological, and vocational needs of youthful offenders. Although system crowding and funding shortfalls frequently compromise achievement of these objectives, the goal of the juvenile court system remains focused on protecting the welfare of youthful offenders. 

This concept of a distinct justice system for juveniles focused on treatment has come under attack in recent years. Beginning in the 1980s, communities across the nation began to experience dramatically increased rates of juvenile crime. Alarmingly, serious violent crimes experienced the most rapid growth. From 1984 through 1994, the arrest rate of juveniles for violent offenses increased by 78 percent. Arrests for murder and aggravated assault increased by 45 percent and 37 percent, respectively, from 1989 through 1993. However, since then juvenile arrest rates have declined. Between 1994 and 1998, violent offenses declined by 19 percent, although they are still 15 percent higher than the 1989 level (Snyder, 1999). As shown in figure 1, this trend appears to have peaked in 1994, with the 1998 arrest rates for violent crime index offenses 30 percent below the 1994 level, although the rates of arrests for serious crime by juveniles remain well above historical levels (Snyder, 1997). 

The increasing incidence and severity of juvenile crime have led many to question the efficacy of the juvenile court system and to call for a harsher response to juvenile crime. Juvenile delinquency that results in more serious offenses has come to be viewed as more a criminal problem than a behavioral problem, resulting in a substantial shift in public response to the management, rather than treatment, of juvenile offenders. This shift is evident in increasing arrest rates, longer periods of incarceration, fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, and, most significantly, increases in the number of juveniles transferred to the adult criminal justice system (Sickmund et al., 1997). This last development is apparent in surveys of legislative trends.

Concerned that the juvenile justice system may be ill equipped to manage youth charged with serious crimes and that the juvenile court may be too lenient in its punishment and control of such youth, many states amended their criminal codes so that youth charged with certain crimes may be tried and sentenced as adults (National Institute of Justice, 1997). Between 1992 and 1996, 43 of the 50 state legislatures and the District of Columbia made substantive changes to their laws targeting juveniles who commit violent or serious crimes. All but 10 states adopted or modified laws making the prosecution of juveniles in criminal court easier. Nearly half (24) of the states added crimes to the list of excluded offenses, and 36 states and the District of Columbia excluded certain categories of juveniles from juvenile court jurisdiction.

The list of offenses considered serious enough for transfer of youth as young as age 14 includes murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and rape, as well as less serious and violent offenses such as aggravated stalking, lewd and lascivious assault or other acts in the presence of a child, violation of drug laws near a school or park, sodomy, and oral copulation. Since 1992, 13 states and the District of Columbia have added or modified statutes that provide for a mandatory minimum period of incarceration for juveniles held as adjudicated delinquents for certain serious and violent crimes.

One legal method to try a youth as an adult is to lower the age of adult court jurisdiction. For example, seven states (Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina, and Texas) have set the age of jurisdiction at 16, whereas three states (Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina) have lowered the age to 15 years. Missouri lowered the age for transfer to criminal court to 12 for any felony. In all but two states (Nebraska and New York), a juvenile court judge can waive jurisdiction over a case and transfer youth to the adult court for certain crimes and at certain age limits.

Although the legal basis for waiver varies from state to state, the trend across the country is to expand the use of waivers. This is being accomplished by lowering the age of adult jurisdiction, by adding to the list of applicable crimes, and by adopting more procedures by which youth can be transferred to adult court (e.g., either through the discretion of the prosecutor or through legislative mandate). Currently, waiver provisions are often applied to nonviolent offenders and, in some states, running away from a juvenile institution is grounds for prosecution in adult courts. Although crimes against persons are now the most frequent offenses related to the use of waiver, the majority of offenders are charged with property, drug, and public order offenses.

Related to the issue of waivers is the disproportionate confinement of minority youth. A number of researchers have noted the overrepresentation of minority youth at every stage of processing in the justice system (Hsia and Hamparian, 1998). Evidence that waiver decisions have been made in a racially disparate manner may support the contention that minority youth are being unfairly targeted for incarceration in adult facilities.

Historical Trends in the Number of Youth 
Confined in Adult Facilities

Levels of confinement can be measured by the number of offenders admitted to a facility or system in a given year or by a 1-day "snapshot" of the number of offenders incarcerated on any given day. Using the most recent national data and information provided by this study, 14,500 juveniles were estimated to be housed in adult correctional facilities on any given day in 1997. Another 93,000 youth were in public and private juvenile facilities, for a total of approximately 107,000 youth incarcerated on any given day (table 1). Table 2 shows that the number of juveniles in adult jails has increased markedly over the past two decades, from 1,736 in 1983 to 8,090 in 1998. Although the number of juveniles in adult jails has increased, the number of youth in adult prisons appears to have declined. For example, in 1995 the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported 5,027 juveniles in state prisons as compared with the 4,775 indicated in this report for 1997. 

Aside from aggregate data on the number of juveniles in adult facilities, little has been known about their individual characteristics. BJS, the primary source of these data, recently issued a study of persons under age 18 who are held in state prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). Table 3 compares the attributes of the state prison admission population under age 18 in 1985 and 1997, as presented in the study. Major highlights are detailed below.

·          The number of offenders under age 18 admitted to state prison more than doubled from 3,400 in 1985 to 7,400 in 1997. However, persons under age 18 have consistently represented about 2 percent of new admissions in each of the 13 years. 

·          In 1997, 61 percent of these admissions were for violent crimes, which represents a substantial increase from the 52 percent admitted for violent crimes in 1985. 

·          Within the violent offense category, the most frequent type of new court commitments for violent crimes was robbery (32 percent), followed by aggravated assault (14 percent), murder (7 percent) , and sexual assault (4 percent). 

·          The proportion of new admission for property offenses decreased from 42 percent in 1985 to 22 percent in 1997. This decline is primarily accounted for by a 15-percent decrease in admitted burglary offenders.

·          Drug offense admissions increased from 2 percent in 1985 to 11 percent in 1997.

·          Public order offenders remained fairly stable between 1985 and 1997.

·          Prison admissions for youthful offenders who are black or Hispanic increased from 67 percent in 1985 to 73 percent in 1997.  

·          Although the vast majority of prison admissions for youthful offenders are age 17 at admission, admissions in the 13-16 age group increased from 20 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 1997. Beginning in 1995, offenders age 14 and younger were being sentenced to prison.

·          In 1997, the average maximum sentence for persons under age 18 was 6.8 years, 4 months less than in 1985. Paradoxically, the average minimum time to be served was 3.6 years, an increase of 9 months from 1985, which is probably due to reductions in good-time credits and/or truth-in-sentencing laws. This trend in sentence length for admissions under age 18 admissions was observed for all offense types with the exception of the mean maximum sentence length for drug offenses, which increased by 2 months.

·          On December 31, 1997, fewer than 1 percent of state prison inmates were under age 18, a proportion that has remained stable since the mid-1980s. 

The BJS report also notes that state prison admissions for the group under age 18 grew faster than arrests, with the likelihood of incarceration relative to arrest increasing in almost every category with the exception of most property offenses.

Conditions of Confinement 

Numerous studies have examined the conditions of confinement and issues faced by juveniles in adult facilities. Research has shown that juveniles in adult facilities are at much greater risk of harm than youth housed in juvenile facilities. The suicide rate for juveniles held in jails is five times the rate in the general youth population and eight times the rate for adolescents in juvenile detention facilities (Community Research Center, 1980). 

Forst and colleagues (1989) reported that, although youth in adult and juvenile facilities were equally likely to be victims of property crime while incarcerated, juveniles in adult facilities were more likely to be violently victimized. In 1988, 47 percent of juveniles in prisons (compared with 37 percent of youth in juvenile facilities) suffered violent victimization, including violence at the hands of staff. Sexual assault was five times more likely in prison, beatings by staff nearly twice as likely, and attacks with weapons were almost 50 percent more common in adult facilities. Clearly, safely housing juveniles in adult facilities and protecting younger inmates from predatory, older inmates are important issues for correctional administrators. 

Policy Issues Addressed by the Study

The growing number of juveniles admitted to adult facilities raises a number of important questions for correctional administrators and policymakers. This research provides key information for decision makers by documenting the number and profiles of youth in adult facilities, the legal and administrative processes by which they are waived to the adult court system, the issues faced by adult correctional systems handling juveniles, and those faced by juveniles who are confined in adult facilities. The specific questions to be answered by this project are as follows:

·          What is the extent of confinement of juveniles in federal, state and local facilities?  What is the legal basis for allowing juveniles convicted as adults to be committed directly to the adult system?

An updated national census is presented of those states permitting juveniles to be charged and convicted as adults, housed during pretrial status in adult pretrial facilities (jails), and sentenced to adult facilities (prisons or jails). Moreover, a summary of recent legislation adopted by the states is provided. 

·          What types of adult facilities are used to house juveniles and what is the legal basis for such commitments?

Juveniles are confined in a wide variety of adult facilities. Juveniles, if charged as adults (and for other reasons), can be housed in adult facilities awaiting the court's disposition. As shown earlier, a far greater number of juveniles are admitted to jails than to state and federal prison facilities. Youth may be placed in jails because they are being prosecuted as adults or because the jurisdiction does not have a juvenile facility for those who require secure confinement while awaiting the court's final disposition of the charges. Distinctions in the legal basis for placing juveniles in adult correctional facilities are discussed.

·          What happens to juveniles in the adult system? Are they placed in separate areas or allowed to be housed with adults?

Sight and sound separation of adults and juveniles at all stages of judicial processing is mandated by Congress for all states under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974, as amended. This report examines to what degree and under what circumstances this mandate is adhered to when minors are sentenced as adults. Further, the ability of mixed-age facilities to provide required programs and services to minors while maintaining separation from adults is discussed.

·          Do juveniles in adult facilities receive unique treatment, education, job skills training, and other services?

Despite being placed in adult facilities, minors retain special civil rights to education, vocational training, and other services that may require additional or special programs. These rights have consequences in staffing and access to appropriate programs that are responsive to the developmental, physical, social, psychological/emotional, educational, and family needs that are unique to adolescents.

·          Does the presence of minors in a mixed-age facility pose unique management problems with respect to disciplinary incidents?

Practitioners have often asserted that younger offenders are more difficult to manage than older inmates. In some jurisdictions, attempts have been made to house youth with older inmates who will provide a calming influence on juveniles, especially those with long sentences. However, research has shown that juveniles in adult populations are more likely to commit suicide and to be victims of violence and sexual assaults. Transferred juveniles create new problems for the adult corrections system, including development of treatment and reintegrative services and protection from predatory inmates. The way in which these disciplinary issues are managed is a key discussion.

·          What are the alternative strategies for housing juvenile offenders sentenced to long terms in adult facilities?

Some juveniles convicted of violent crimes are now facing extremely long, life, or death sentences. This bleak future may create additional disciplinary and mental health issues that must be managed by correctional administrators and staff. 

Overview of the Report

Chapter 2 provides an assessment of the laws and administrative policies that provide the legal basis for placing juveniles in adult prisons and jails. Also presented is an analysis of the circumstances that constitute the breakpoint between adult and juvenile proceedings. In certain circumstances (e.g., age, offense, criminal history), a youth younger than the statutory age of court jurisdiction can be handled in the adult system. Other prescriptions govern the conditions under which a youth can be held in pretrial and/or sentenced status and the types of institutions in which a youth may be held. The range of allowable sentences to adult facilities is also discussed.

Chapter 3 presents the results of the national survey of the numbers and attributes of juveniles housed in adult jails and prisons. Individuals age 17 and younger were defined as juveniles. Using this definition, the chapter provides an assessment of the prevalence of juvenile incarceration in adult facilities and profiles the demographic and offense characteristics of these juveniles.

Chapter 4 describes the facilities surveyed and the types of programs available to juveniles in these institutions. Of particular interest are the degree to which juveniles are segregated from adult offenders and the types of programs available at these institutions. This chapter also summarizes the management issues created by the presence of juvenile offenders in adult institutions and how correctional administrators attempt to respond to those issues. The chapter provides a discussion of the day-to-day issues associated with housing juvenile offenders with adults.

Chapter 5 identifies issues for further research and topical areas of technical assistance that the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) should consider offering to assist state and local governments to assist them in managing juveniles in adult facilities. 

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