Pluses and Minuses of Youth Detention Centers

Once processed in the juvenile court system there are many different pathways for juveniles. Whereas some juveniles are released directly back into the community to undergo community-based rehabilitative programs, some juveniles may pose a greater threat to society and to themselves and therefore are in need of a stay in a supervised juvenile detention center. If a juvenile is sent by the courts to a juvenile detention center there are two types of facilities: secure detention and secure confinement.

Secure detention means that juveniles are held for usually short periods of time in facilities in order to await current trial hearings and further placement decisions. By holding juveniles in secure detention, it ensures appearance in court while also keeping the community safe and risk-free of the juvenile. This type of facility is usually called a “juvenile hall,” which is a holding center for juvenile delinquents. On the other hand, secure confinement implies that the juvenile has been committed by the court into the custody of a secure juvenile correctional facility for the duration of a specific program, which can span from a few months to many years.


Juvenile detention is not intended to be punitive. Rather, juveniles held in secure custody usually receive care consistent with the doctrine of the state as parent. The state or local jurisdiction is usually responsible for providing education, recreation, health, assessment, counseling and other intervention services with the intent of maintaining a youth’s well-being during his or 

her stay in custody.

Generally speaking, secure detention is reserved for juveniles considered to be a threat to public safety or the court process, though in many cases, youths are held for violating a court order. Status offenders, i.e., juveniles charged with running away from home, alcohol possession, and other offenses that are not crimes if committed by adults, may only be held for 24 hours or less while initial case investigation is completed and other alternatives are arranged.

Within the categories of secure detention and secure confinement for juveniles, the overarching name of these facilities is residential programs and there are five overarching types of residential programs where a juvenile may be placed while in court custody: detention, corrections, camp, community based, and residential treatment. The reason for the wide variety in placement options of juveniles is that there does not currently exist a uniform definition of residential treatment programs. As a result, this creates a lack of uniformity across states and a large variety of names for secure detention and secure confinement centers for juveniles.

Many services are supposed to be provided to the youth at both detention centers and confinement facilities. Services vary from facility to facility, but in general the programs and services provided to the youth are geared to the juvenile needs. At the core, juvenile facilities function as rehabilitative institutions for youth. Education is seen by many as the primary rehabilitative service that must be provided to detained youth. Highly effective schools within juvenile facilities provide high school curriculum, opportunities for General Equivalency Diploma preparation, special education services, certified teachers, small student to teacher ratio, connection with families, and vocational training opportunities.

There is a long-standing connection found in research between youth who commit crimes and mental health concerns. There has been found to be a surprisingly high population of juveniles who present serious mental health illness within juvenile facilities. Since juvenile detention facilities operate on the foundation of rehabilitating the youth, different mental health programs are provided by facilities to help the youth rehabilitate. The incarcerated youth population requires careful and structured intervention, which must be provided by the facilities.

Many different mental health treatment strategies exist for juveniles. It is the responsibility of case management to decide what type of intervention strategy works best for each youth in his or her mental health treatment plan. Mental health services that can be provided to the youth include, individual counseling, group counseling, crisis counseling, family intervention, medication management, and transition planning.

Education is seen by many as the cornerstone of youth rehabilitation. Many landmark court cases, such as the 1981 case of Green v. Johnson, have given way to juveniles receiving their educational rights while incarcerated. Green v. Johnson (1981) ruled that incarcerated students do not have to give up their rights to an education while incarcerated.

Despite research stating the need for strong educational programs in juvenile detention facilities, there does not exist a uniform standard for education in juvenile facilities as education settings in juvenile facilities greatly vary across the country. The overseer of the school within the juvenile facility differs from state to state. Some schools within juvenile detention facilities are decentralized, some are centralized and run by school districts, and others are overseen by a State education agency.

There is a large percentage of incarcerated juveniles who are diagnosed as students with special needs. Educational programs in juvenile facilities are most usually designed to look like secondary schools in the community, and so special education services should be provided. The Office of Special Education Programs requires State Education Agencies to ensure that special education services are being provided at juvenile facilities.

All youth who have a disability, regardless of incarceration status, are authorized and eligible for their special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since there is a wide variety of juvenile detention and confinement facilities across the nation, the type and quality of special education services provided to the youth greatly varies.There has been a history of juveniles with disabilities not receiving their mandated accommodations and modifications. With the passing of IDEA in addition to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, juvenile correctional facilities have become seen as federally funded institutions and thus there prevails the mandated right to serve all students with disabilities as such institutions regardless if it is a short term or long term stay.

The disabilities most prevalent in incarcerated juveniles include mental retardation, learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. Surveys and studies have found that a high number of incarcerated youth suffer from emotional disturbance disabilities as opposed to youth in general public schools. Even with key court decisions and acts, it has been found that a large number of juveniles held at both detention centers and confinement facilities are not being served the special education services they should be provided by law. Many juvenile detention institutions have struggling special education programs, especially for those centers that detain youth for short periods of time.

Juvenile detention centers and long-term confinement facilities have constantly been discussed and debated around two major concerns: overcrowding and ineffectiveness. As the number of juvenile cases has increased in the past 15 years, so have the number of juveniles spending time in secure and confined facilities. As a result, the systems have become overpopulated and overcrowded, and many times this leads to the issue of too many residents and not enough empty beds.

Overcrowding has been found to exist in many facilities for juveniles. Crowding can create extremely dangerous environments in juvenile detention centers and juvenile correctional facilities. Many times the administration is not prepared to handle the large number of residents and therefore the facilities can become unstable and create instability in simple logistics. Furthermore, overcrowding can also bring about an increase in violence.

Overcrowding may also lead to the decrease in availability to provide the youth with much needed and promised programs and services while they are in the facility. If funding is an issue with a specific facility, overcrowding can be problematic in terms of the availability of services such as education and mental health to all of the youth.

In addition to overcrowding, juvenile secure facilities are questioned for their overall effectiveness in the bigger picture life of the youth. What causes many critics to question the overall effectiveness of secure detention centers and confinement facilities is the high juvenile recidivism rate. If juvenile centers are to provide the basic needs of the youth they serve, another large criticism by many is that the centers fail to meet the basic educational, mental health, and necessary rehabilitative needs of the youth. Part of the reason why overall effectiveness is a concern for juvenile secure settings is also due to the belief that all special education services may not be upheld to all youth in need while staying in the facility. Additionally, many juvenile centers have been found to lack basic educational programs for the youth.

Education is seen by many as a direct link to recidivism as is mental health needs of juveniles. Another area of concern in the bigger picture of juvenile facilities is the adequacy of mental health programs. It has been found that many juvenile facilities have well-executed mental health programs for the youth and that others have not.

Sexually Exploited Girls Need Services, Not Handcuffs

For as long as anyone can remember, children bought and sold for sex in the United States have been ignored or worse — arrested, incarcerated and released right back onto the streets. Some victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) are reported to child welfare, but these cases are routinely turned away and referred to law enforcement. Our public systems have failed to identify these children as victims of child abuse in need of child welfare and community supports.

In the past few years, California has witnessed an expansion in services and attention paid to these children through the juvenile justice system. A handful of California county probation departments and juvenile courts have established innovative programs such as the Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (S.T.A.R.) Court in Los Angeles County, which provides referrals for commercially sexually exploited children, and the Girls Courts in Alameda, Orange, Sacramento and San Mateo counties. The treatment, as opposed to punishment, these programs offer CSEC has been a welcome reform.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford 

But the changes that have taken place remain almost exclusively within the context of delinquency. Therefore, despite the increase in services, the message remains the same: Children who have been raped and traumatized by their traffickers and purchasers are criminals. Prostitutes.

In any other context our values are clear: When an adult rapes a child, the child is a victim and the adult is the criminal. When money changes hands, this same child is criminalized and the adults, more often than not, walk away.

Some claim that locking up youth is necessary for “their own protection.” This paternalistic message fails in translation. It communicates that the youth have done something wrong, rather than something wrong was done to the youth. It is time we reform our systems so that these children are not further traumatized. All child victims of rape are victims. Period.

Acknowledging these children as victims is only the beginning. Our public systems must commit to effectively identifying CSEC. All major gatekeepers within our systems — from educators to social workers, police officers to homeless youth providers — should screen for victims and have protocols to connect them to trauma-informed services.

Systems must also prioritize prevention for at-risk children. Since children who become victims are frequently those with prior involvement with the child welfare system, we must start there. Our system and community networks must work together to reduce the number of victims by fortifying our children’s and their families’ protective factors, injecting preventive education into schools, and ensuring that all children have access to treatment to address prior childhood trauma and reduce their vulnerability to exploitation.

Now, as the country begins to implement the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (HR 4980), all states share the same impetus to design policies to best serve children who are, or are at risk of becoming, CSEC. These policies include reporting requirements to determine prevalence and, ideally, begin tracking outcomes for children. Ahead of the curve is California, the state with the largest child welfare population, which is positioned to establish a model for system reform.

In 2014, California enacted legislation (SB 855) clarifying that trafficked children are victims and, as such, are properly served by child welfare. The legislation also established the groundbreaking Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Program, incentivizing counties to develop and implement interagency CSEC protocols. Most critically, these protocols must include a multidisciplinary teaming approach to identify and serve CSEC, with child welfare as the lead.

Since the law’s passage, child welfare agencies in 35 of California’s 58 counties have engaged in cross-agency dialogue to outline current and planned CSEC protocols. All of these counties received planning funding. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) provided additional funding to 22 of these counties to finalize and implement their interagency protocols. To assist with these efforts, CDSS established a Child Trafficking Response Unit and worked with the California Child Welfare Council’s CSEC Action Team to develop a number of resources, including a model interagency protocol.

On Dec. 1, multidisciplinary teams from 21 counties convened for an innovative, peer-based learning opportunity organized by the CSEC Action Team and its partners. After a series of panels and simulations, county teams turned inward and worked together to digest new information and apply promising practices to their own protocols. Following the event, the CSEC Action Team launched a CSEC listserv to promote information sharing across counties on such topics as specialized child welfare units, prevention curricula and even successful Request for Proposals (RFP) for community-based providers.

Despite its progress, California still has a way to go. SB 855 is well over a year old and exploited children continue to be charged with prostitution and related offenses and sent to jail. Most CSEC Program counties have not finalized their child welfare-led protocols and another 23 counties have not yet opted into the program. Up until now, training for social workers and probation officers has been inconsistently applied throughout the state, and many system providers still believe in the need to detain CSEC for their own good.

Despite the slow start, there are strong indicators pointing to California being on the right path. Many additional counties are expected to opt into next year’s CSEC Program. The more advanced efforts in Los Angeles have led to plummeting arrest rates in pilot sites following the implementation of the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol for CSEC.

Additionally, the county recently collaborated with Rights for Girls to launch the “No Such Thing as a child prostitute” public awareness campaign, and created a regional task force led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Finally, 22 counties are now testing the West Coast Commercial Sexual Exploitation Identification Tool. Due to the requirements of HR 4980, all social workers and probation officers across the state will soon be identifying, documenting and determining services for CSEC.

States across the country must act now to identify and serve CSEC as victims of child abuse. They can begin by learning from the progress we’ve made in California.

Atrocious Conditions Persist in Nigeria’s Ancient Prisons for Women and Infants

In Nigeria, pregnant women or nursing mothers convicted of crimes are usually sent to jail alongside their infants, until they are weaned. Kurmawa Prison located in Kano City is one of the colonial prisons in the country. Located near the emir’s palace in Kano, the over 100-year-old prison boasts of two cells for 20 inmates each, which presently house over 92 inmates.

Sanitary conditions at the prison premises leave a lot

Nigerian prison

Nigerian prison

to be desired. Nothing in the environment meets minimum standard of a prison environment. From open soak-away pits behind the prison cells to the stench of urine and feces around the premises, all known sanitation norms have been disregarded.

The situation is not different at the Goron Dutse Prison, also in Kano City. Existing toilets, drainages and other infrastructure constructed many years ago are begging for renovation after years of overuse and neglect.

These were some of the issues that the Minister of Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau was confronted with during an official tour of the two prisons, recently.

Kurmawa Prison was built during the reign of the Kano emir, at the time when emirs served as judges, owned prisons and sentenced law breakers to various prison terms. This explains why many prisons in some northern states are built close to emirs’ palaces.

During the minister’s visit, it was discovered that among the 92 inmates are nursing mothers and their children. The children, though being held for no offense, are still being nursed and have to remain with their mothers who are serving jail terms for various crimes. No fewer than five infants were seen at the prison with their mothers, living in the most deplorable conditions.

Prison authorities told the minister that the offences for which some of the nursing mothers were jailed are those for which they could have been simply cautioned. The prison officials explained that the mothers of the children were either pregnant of already nursing them at the time they were thrown into prison. However, some women who had spent periods longer than the nine months gestation period for a child, some upwards of 18 months, nursing newborn babies.

The obviously perplexed Dambazau who apparently got more than he bargained for, as the decision to check on the female prison inmates was at his instance. He lamented the abuse of the fundamental human rights of the children who were holed up in such deplorable condition for no offense they committed. ”The harsh realities in the ancient prisons are too much for any child to bear,” the minister lamented.

One of the female inmates at Kurmawa Prison told the minister that she was thrown in prison alongside her children. She alleged that the children’s offence, according to the authorities, was that they picked money off the ground on her instructions. She said she had been remanded in the prison for four years now, awaiting trial.

Minister of Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau said:

I don’t like to see any female inmate with a child because there are a lot of consequences on the child and on the mother. It has been explained to me that while the child is at early age where he is still feeding through the mother, she could still have him until he gets to the point where he can be detached from the mother and be taken to relatives or to the social welfare.

He pointed out that the situation requires serious improvement, which he assured that the federal government would work on.

One of the prison officials who craved anonymity, lamented that incarceration of women alongside their infants was detrimental to the health and psychology of the child, especially taking into cognizance the state of sanitation at the prison. He advocated a review of the law which allows a pregnant woman or nursing mother serving a jail term to keep the baby over a specified period before handing the child for foster care. Observations around the prison environment found it unbefitting for any child to grow in.

There was also the issue of two young persons of Jigawa State, Aminu Yakubu and Mainasara, who were found to have been wrongfully condemned to death for stealing a duck and car stereo and were transferred to Kurmawa Prison without the benefit of a defense. The duo had spent 14 years each, in the prison.

Mainasara cried out to the Minister:

Our prosecution didn’t take place in the open court, to intentionally avoid media attention or justice. Instead of charging us for stealing, we were charged with armed robbery and then condemned to death.

There also was the pathetic story of person of Edo State who had spent 19 years at the prison who had neither been visited by any family member nor had access to a lawyer.

The minister, who after listening to this complaint, asked that a report be written for his attention.

The minister described the issue of awaiting trials as one that remains a major challenge in Nigeria’s prisons, saying his ministry, together with other stakeholders including the police, judges and civil society organizations will come together to find a solution to the nagging problem of inmates awaiting trial, as a way of decongesting the prisons.

He said it was unjust for anyone to spend so many years in prison awaiting trial, noting that some inmates had spent many years awaiting trial for offences for which if they are convicted, they could spend only a few months.

Dambazau said the option of granting amnesty to some awaiting trial inmates whose freedom may not be a threat to the society, would be explored.

He reiterated the federal government’s commitment towards reducing prison congestion, rehabilitating dilapidated prison facilities and above all addressing the issue of awaiting trial, which he said was the main cause of congestion in prisons.

It’s Difficult for Courts to Identify Sex-Trafficking Victims Before Sentencing

gavelIt is challenging for courts to accurately screen and identify young trafficking victims within a criminal context. Victims rarely self-identify, and are often coached by their traffickers to conceal their exploitation from law enforcement and health-care professionals. It is common for an exploited child to enter the court system through seemingly unrelated crimes like drug possession, petty theft or even truancy. If investigative procedures are not trauma-sensitive, a child may be less inclined to disclose or engage with investigating officers. Symptoms of complex trauma such as shutting down, defensiveness or defiance can be misinterpreted by professionals as un-co-operativeness. Barriers can develop between court professionals and the child, which benefit the trafficker and increase the chances that the victim will return to her exploiter.

January is Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which highlights a growing problem in local Nevada communities, including Reno and Washoe County. Human trafficking is often mistakenly believed to only affect urban areas and immigrant populations. In reality, trafficking is a problem in all 50 states and United States territories. Both U.S. citizens and permanent residents are being victimized. Even the tiny island territory of Guam has experienced trafficking, along with isolated rural areas and tribal reservations in the United States interior.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges works extensively with courts to improve their response to domestic child sex trafficking (DCST) and commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).

Kelly Ranasinghe, the senior program attorney for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, says:

These DCST and CSEC cases are among the most difficult and challenging cases for juvenile courts to handle. Victims may suffer from complex trauma and require therapeutic services beyond the capacity of local jurisdictions. Child trafficking victims may exhibit delinquent conduct such as substance abuse, truancy, physical aggression or larceny fueled by trauma.

Cases are further complicated by the trafficker’s insidious practice of recruiting victims with pre-existing vulnerabilities such as mental illness, family dysfunction or trauma. Child sex traffickers target youth at critical stages in their development, warping common beliefs about gender and parental roles to construct unhealthy quasi-parental or romantic relationships. Isolation of the victim from family and social support systems is part of the recruitment process while incoherence and confusion fosters a sense of dependence, ultimately reinforcing the power and control of the trafficker.

Nevada ranks first in the nation for the arrest of minors for prostitution, nearly 15 times the national average. Nevada lacks safe harbor laws. “Safe harbor” is the colloquial term for laws designed to protect sexually exploited minors from being prosecuted for their own victimization.

In Reno, Awaken continues to dedicate its efforts to the prevention of sex trafficking and rehabilitation of victims alongside law enforcement, who are well-trained on child sex trafficking dynamics. However, despite Awaken’s and law enforcement’s monumental efforts, sex trafficking of both minors and young females continues to be problematic. Only two months ago, a John Suppression Operation resulted in nearly eleven arrests for trafficking and related crimes and the detention of three runaway exploited minors. Recent media have focused on the arrests of victims — young girls in this case — rather than those who sought to purchase sex from children. In that community, this problem is not going away and the support of the community, including the media, is needed to change the way victims are treated and how those who purchase sex from or traffic children are prosecuted.

Studies show that communities which foster coordinated community response networks tend to have the best results. In ideal situations, all agencies and providers which may contact a victim of child trafficking work in concert from the very beginning, with a mutually agreed-upon goal of recovery and support. Similarly, trauma sensitivity at every stage of the recovery process, including within the courtroom, plays a substantial role in helping minors feel like the court system is a partner in their recovery, rather than a punitive entity.

To learn more about trafficking, or how you can help combat DCST and CSEC in your community, you can visit the NCJFCJ website or the websites of its partner agencies: Futures Without Violence, Human Rights for Girls, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Office for Victims of Crime.

California Lawmakers Propose to Spend $2 Billion Aiding Chronic Mentally Ill Homeless

The simplest solution to chronic homelessness is also the most daunting: build more housing or retrofit existing units. Then, for the most troubled or disabled homeless individuals, supply services to help them become more self-sufficient: mental health care, substance abuse treatment and job counseling. The welter of plans expected out of L.A. city and county governments in the coming days will include the goal of building permanent supportive housing at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. So a proposal by state lawmakers to issue $2 billion in bonds for housing California’s chronically homeless people with mental illness, paid for with funds reserved for mental health programs, offers a welcome infusion of money to the expensive and challenging business of building such housing.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

The projects funded will have to employ the “housing first” model that calls for placing homeless people into housing before addressing their dependencies and disabilities.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and a bipartisan group of his colleagues announced the proposal rercently on L.A.’s skid row in the courtyard of Star Apartments, one of the most successful examples of permanent supportive housing in the city. And these legislators — in contrast to the L.A. elected officials who have pledged $100 million to fight homelessness — actually knew where the money would come from.

The annual bond payments would be covered by $130 million of the approximately $1.8 million in funds generated each year for mental health services by Proposition 63. That ballot measure was co-authored by former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who was an early advocate for using some of its funds to build housing. Steinberg is a champion of the new proposal. De Leon estimates the funds could help produce at least 10,000 units of housing; Steinberg says it could be several times that.

Beyond that, however, the proposal is short on details and ripe for political problems. The money will be distributed to county governments through a competitive grant process, but what the criteria are, how long it will take to get funds and how much any one project could be awarded all remain to be decided. Currently, counties get a share of Proposition 63 funds based on their population. That won’t happen with these housing project funds, although de Leon said he expects that a “good portion” of the funds will go to Los Angeles County since it has about 44,000 of the state’s 114,000 homeless residents, making it, in de Leon’s words, the “epicenter” of homelessness.

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial stated:

It makes sense that the state legislators want to contribute funding to projects, not wholly underwrite them. The point is to use the state money to help generate more funding from other contributors, including the federal government and private investors. Permanent supportive housing projects are financed with the help of numerous funding sources, which can take years to piece together. The state’s dollars could very well make that process go faster. And it’s smart to make the process competitive, rather than creating what amounts to a new entitlement for local governments. The idea is that proposed projects wouldn’t even get funded until local government officials and project developers could show they were coordinating their efforts into a solid proposal.

Like many Angelenos, de Leon is frustrated with the lack of coordination and vision on the local level in Los Angeles when it comes to housing homeless people. Simply distributing more money to the county for officials to do as they please doesn’t fit his particular vision for solving homelessness.

The Times editorial continues:

De Leon’s skepticism is understandable because a succession of powerful people — city councils and mayors, county supervisors — have stepped up to a podium and said that Los Angeles’ approach to housing homeless people has failed, so they’re intervening with a plan that supposedly will work better. And though we are encouraged to see more people devote time and attention to this issue — and in the case of the senators’ plan, put a serious amount of new money onto the table — we’ve yet to see a credible effort to bring the various players together to coordinate their efforts. We are weary of the well-meaning, if not fully thought-out, ad hoc efforts. Now that they’ve stepped up to help, the state lawmakers need to follow through with a fair way for distributing the funds. And city and county officials in Los Angeles need to come up with credible, inventive proposals for getting the county’s much-needed share.

Oklahoma High Female Arrest, and Poor Probation and Parole Rates Due to Bad, Outdated Policies

University of Oklahoma professor Dr. Susan Sharp, who has spent her liffe studying the plight of women in Oklahoma prisons. says: 

We appear to be angrier at women who use drugs than we are at men who kill someone. It makes no sense that you get a lesser sentence for killing a human being than you do for having meth. 

She believes her state leads the nation (and all but four nations) in female incarceration because of its backward, highly punitive laws

Women make up 10.2 percent of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections population, which exceeds the national 4 to 7 percent average, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). In July 2007, the NCCD reported on disparities among states in the Oklahomaway female offenders are treated.

Using data from prisons, jails, probation and parole for adult and juvenile women, the NCCD found that disparate incarceration, probation and parole rates don’t correspond to state arrest rates but are due to state policies and practices. Additionally, the council concluded that the most punitive states do not have lower female crime rates.

Throughout her years of research, Sharp has learned that incarcerated women in Oklahoma have experienced high levels of abuse throughout their lives:

About two-thirds of them were physically or sexually abused as children. More than 70 percent were victims of intimate partner violence, and now they’re in a system that is covertly abusive.

Sharp’s studies revealed gender differences in men and women in prison.

“Women tend to be more relational — their primary focus tends to be on relationships — while men are more focused on achievements, so the separation of children and family has a greater impact on the women,” Sharp said. “They get less support from outside than the men do, and they have high levels of trauma and PTSD that’s undealt with.”

“Women are more highly stigmatized for criminal behavior, so their partners tend to leave them,” Sharp said. “Their families are usually burned out by caring for the women’s children and don’t have any time or resources left for the women.”

Sharp said half of the state’s incarcerated women are in prison on mostly low-level drug offenses compared to lower rates of incarceration by other states for those same types of offenses:

We have tougher drug laws. We have longer sentences, we’re less likely to have probation and more likely to revoke probation for minor technicalities — we just have meaner laws.


Rules with mandatory sentences like “three strikes you’re out,” which result in life in prison without parole, and “85 percent crimes” may take away the ability for the courts to be flexible based on the circumstances of the crime. Last May, the governor signed House Bill 1574 into law, which will allow more flexibility in the three-strikes law. HB 1574 amended the law to allow juries the option of a 20 years to life in prison sentence, rather than mandating life without parole.

Oklahoma’s 85 percent crimes require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of the crime before being eligible for parole. Enumerated in Title 21 of the state statutes, 22 crimes fall under the 85 percent rule. The crimes enumerated include everything from murder to rape to child pornography and human trafficking. Also included are manslaughter, robbery, first-degree burglary and aggravated assault.

Sharp believes it’s time for state lawmakers to move beyond political gamesmanship and start looking at how to solve the unintended inequities in the current system:

One of the things we need to do is really revise our criminal code. The way it works is each year the legislature adds more and more. Many states are rewriting codes because they got so out of hand from the war on drugs. We need to do the same. We need to have more drug treatment and mental health treatment before people go to prison — especially programs for women with children.

To understand the depth of the problem, Sharp believes policymakers need to understand addiction, that women in trauma or those with emotional or mental health issues often self medicate as a coping mechanism:

We don’t provide them with needed services and then we punish them because we didn’t provide them with needed services. Drug addiction isn’t necessarily a choice.

Sharp said there are some well-run programs in Cleveland County, but only a small percentage of people get into those programs. The average drug sentence in Oklahoma is six years, she said.

“And that’s partly because of how we run our drug courts,” Sharp said, pointing out that often there’s an option between two years in prison or going through drug court. The problem is, if you fail drug court, you get four years. Drug court provides the structure and accountability that many of our prisoners never had growing up.” Sharp believes giving people a worse sentence for failure in drug court sends the wrong message.

In July 2007, the leadership of the Oklahoma State Legislature, through the Legislative Services Bureau, requested that MGT of America conduct a comprehensive performance review of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“That was one of their criticisms of Oklahoma: the longer sentences for failing drug court. Drug court is tough. You really have to toe the line to be successful in drug court,” Sharp said.

Nationally, MGT found that 29 percent of incarcerated women had drug offenses compared to 19 percent of men while 35 percent of female prisoners had a violent offense compared to 53 percent of men with violent offenses.

Failure-to-protect laws allow for the conviction of the non-abusive parent when a child is a victim of abuse. While the law sounds good, when applied to women in abusive relationships, prosecutors applying the failure-to-protect law may not take into account how intimidated and beat down a woman who is also a victim of domestic violence may feel, critics say.

Often these women are afraid or psychologically unable to confront the abuser, even to protect a child, Sharp said. She has come across cases where the mother who failed to protect ended up with a higher sentence than the man who was the primary abuser.

Sharp said people administering these laws don’t understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence where one person uses fear and coercion to control the other one — usually a male using it against a female.

According to MGT, Oklahoma Department of Corrections documents indicate 72 percent of women at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the state’s highest security female prison, have some mental health diagnosis and receive mental health services.


Indiana League of Women Voters Backs Refinements in Juvenile Justice System

Indiana’s League of Women Voters (LWV) has recently updated its position on juvenile justice. It emphasizes that rehabilitation must be the primary goal of the juvenile justice system and that detention should be used only for the protection of the child or others, or if the child is a flight risk. All children must be treated equitably, regardless of sex, race, ethnic 54edfee685b3f.image (1)background, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

The League stresses that major community partners — courts, law enforcement, schools, youth service agencies, parents and the community at large — should support an effective and efficient system for the assessment and treatment of juveniles in trouble. Annual study to evaluate the practices and progress toward implementation of best practices is essential.

The LWV supports these refinements in the juvenile justice system:
• The continued support and funding of the Department of Corrections Division of Youth Services. The Division of Youth Services oversees all aspects of the Indiana Department of Corrections Juvenile Care. The Division of Youth Services has adopted the OJJDP Balanced and Restorative Justice Model.
• Annual reporting and evaluation by the Division of Youth Services on the effectiveness of the Balanced and Restorative and Justice Model and its impact on juveniles which requires juvenile justice professionals to devote attention to: enabling offenders to make amends to their victims and community, increasing offender competencies and protecting the public through processes in which individual victims, the community, and offenders are all active participants.
• Protection of the legal rights of juveniles by providing counsel to the extent possible from the beginning of the intake process.
• No waiving of counsel for juveniles under 16 years of age.
• A right to counsel for students facing expulsion from school.
• Standardization of the rules of due process for juvenile courts, Probation Department and the Department of Correction.
• Assistance of the Judicial Center in interpreting laws, notifying and educating juvenile probation staff of changes and overseeing their enforcement for juvenile courts and law enforcement agencies.
• Required training in child and adolescent development — physical and mental, typical and atypical — and in family systems for judges and probation officers having juvenile jurisdiction, and support for similar training for attorneys and other relevant personnel in juvenile cases.
• Specialized and ongoing continuing education and training for correctional officers who work with juveniles and specific guidelines for work with the juveniles.

The League’s position also includes recommendations for status offenders, delinquent juvenile offenders, delivery of services, probation, record keeping, the public school’s role, law enforcement and police training, detention and institutionalization and alternatives.

Increase of Female Incarceration Harmful to Families and Communities

Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population with their numbers rising steadily for three decades. The American Civil Liberties Union attributes the trend partly to the war on drugs and incarceration of nonviolent offenders, which describes more than 80 percent of the female prison population in New York.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project says poor mental health can be a pathway to prison, and many women end up in jail because they lack mental health resources.

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Fettig says these trends have been detrimental to the communities and children of these women, both in the state and nationally:

They tend to do worse in school. They have behavioral problems, and research is making connections between parental incarceration and the subsequent incarceration of children.

Taking the primary caretaker away from a child at a critical point in their development has negative outcomes both for the child and the family, but also for the community at large.

More than 40 percent of women in New York prisons reported having a serious mental illness in 2007 research.

Fettig says it isn’t only women of color who are affected by the criminal justice system. More white women also are being sentenced, in part because of the methamphetamine and opioid epidemics.

Women’s pathways to the criminal justice system also differ from those of men. They are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse or other forms of victimization, according to the American Jail Association.

Fettig says alternatives to incarceration are needed to address the outcomes of women impacted by these issues:

What we see is a huge need, quite frankly, for alternatives to incarceration where women can remain in the community, if not directly with their children, at least in contact with their children. Because so many women are nonviolent offenders – drug-related or property crimes.

The advocacy group The Sentencing Project says the number of women in prison has risen at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. Currently, more than 1 million are under some type of supervision by the criminal justice system.

Homeless Outreach Program North of Houston Transitioning People From Jail to Homes and Services

Targeting the significant homeless population in northwest Harris County (suburban Houston, TX) the Harris County sheriff’s office (HSCO) recently created the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). HCSO has dedicated two deputies, a sergeant and one lieutenant to the HOT, which is a private-public partnership including local nonprofits. The program’s goal is to divert the homeless population from jail cells by connecting them with housing and social services. HCSO Lt. Robert Henry said:

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

We wanted to look at a different way to help people rather than to criminalize them. This program will get people off the street and into temporary housing.

The HOT will also address the intersection of homelessness and mental illness. Officers in the program have been trained to recognize and respond to mental illness and have taken a 30-day course in advanced first aid. “Isn’t it time that we decriminalize mental illness and homelessness and start treating them for what they really are?” Henry asked. Although homelessness has declined overall in the Greater Houston area, officials said the problem persists in unincorporated areas of Harris County. The FM 1960 are northwest of the city features the largest concentration of homelessness in the county— especially near Cutten and Kuykendahl roads—where panhandling and pitched tents cause mobility concerns. Economic factors and the gentrification of Houston’s inner city have pushed the homeless issue out to north Houston towns Spring and Klein. Carole Little, Northwest Assistance Ministry’s president and CEO said:

There’s been a tremendous migration from inner city to the suburbs as rent has increased, and the inner city started to renovate and taxes were raised. Rent goes up, and residents end up migrating to where they can afford housing. “FM1960 has seen a tremendous increase in people living below the poverty line. And many people are one crisis [away] from homelessness. The No. 1 reason people become homeless is economics.

Looking to address the growing need, the HOT’s two deputies will be tasked with meeting homeless people, building a rapport by learning their stories and assessing what each individual needs to transition into temporary housing. Homeless people will only be arrested if they are committing a crime, Henry said. The program provides the homeless an opportunity to meet with civilian service providers. HCSO has partnered with several organizations—including Spring and Klein nonprofits Northwest Assistance Ministries and Hope Haven—to provide immediate services in areas such as mental health, substance abuse and assistance for veterans. However, some homeless people may just need help procuring an ID card to enter a shelter or apply for jobs, HCSO Deputy Thomas Gilliland said. In just the first two weeks of HOT’s implementation, HCSO deputies helped transition 18 homeless people into temporary housing, Henry said. He expects this number to grow as the program becomes more ingrained in the community.

The HCSO will track the number of homeless people who are contacted, the number of people who accept the proposition and which social service they were diverted to. The HOT represents a different approach to law enforcement in Harris County where officers attempt to improve the community as opposed to only enforcing the law. Other law enforcement agencies, such as the Harris County Precinct 4 constable’s office, will interact differently with the homeless in northwest Harris County.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said:

We’ve written tickets and arrested them for outstanding warrants. Now we’re going to use the HOT as a resource. What we found is that you get them out of the road, and they’re back in the road the next day. It’s a public safety issue.

The HOT is a natural progression from the Crisis Intervention Response Team, which was founded in April to divert mentally ill people who face minor charges into treatment rather than county jail cells. Following an August meeting of HCSO officials in which Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman showed his support for the HOT program, Henry said he began planning the program’s rollout.

Although the number of homeless individuals in Harris and Fort Bend counties have decreased by 46 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless individuals in Harris County Jail decreased by only 20.4 percent during that time frame. Saving tax dollars The HOT program received $110,000 from private donations to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Foundation. The donations allowed the agency to purchase a van and a utility task vehicle that can reach wooded or wet areas. The program’s only costs to taxpayers are the salaries of the participating officers. The program is also financially beneficial to taxpayers, who are footing the bill for Harris County jails.

Kristyn Stillwell, president and executive director of Hope Haven, said:

Receiving three tickets or spending a night in jail won’t stop them from doing the thing that’s feeding them,. By offering these services, it kind of circumvents the system and fixes it from the back door. It took these HOT teams to get the support we need on the streets.

Ohio’s Mahoning County Tries Unique Effort to Keep Kids in School and Out of Prison

Mahoning County Ohio, which includes Youngstown, is launching a new program with a goal of keeping kids in school and out of the justice system. It’s a collaborative effort between the juvenile court and local schools.

At a news conference announcing the program 9367253_GJuvenile Court Judge Theresa Dellick said, ”At this time we are embarking on a new future for Mahoning county.” 

Judge Dellick was joined by superintendents from local districts that will be a part of the new Early Warning System for students who are at risk of dropping out. Dellick says it begins by decreasing truancy.

She explained:

We need to tackle truancy by keeping our kids in school so they never come here, and if they never come here it’s so less likely they go on to the juvenile justice system and on to the adult system.

Early warning teams will intervene as soon as a student begins to fall below a designated threshold level.

Boardman School Superintendent Frank Lazzeri said:

You can’t just concentrate on the A and B students. We have to look at every student and help every student meet their full potential so as to keep kids in school.

The superintendents say a key part of the program is the resources the court will bring to the schools. Team members from the court will be able to go into the homes to meet with the parents and help them pull together to make education a priority.

Lazzeri added:

Those resources are going to help us be more effective in meeting the needs of those students who potentially could fall through the cracks.

The program is supported by a $600,000 federal grant from the U.S. Justice Department, one of only four such grants awarded nationwide. Taking part in the pilot program will be Austintown, Boardman, Struthers, Youngstown and the Mahoning County High School. The program requires no cost for the participating local schools.

Judge Dellick has high expectations for the program:

Our statistics of high crime, low education and high poverty should end with this grant, and I am confident that it will.