Youth in detention

When a child is arrested and charged with a crime, it is always a complex situation. Like any other citizen, juveniles have the right to judicial process. They have a right to be represented in court by an attorney and to have their case properly investigated. While the judicial process is being worked out, they have a right to a safe and secure place to live. They need to be protected from being harmed. They need to have an opportunity to continue their education. They need to have contact with family members. They need access to health care. Many need counseling. Most of the time, youth who have been arrested and charged with a crime have already had complex lives. Many are victims of abuse or neglect. They have made poor choices in part because they have been surrounded by adults who have made poor choices.

In the late 18th century and through much of the 19th century, children who were convicted of crimes were housed in jails and penitentiaries. Children of all ages and genders were confined with hardened adult criminals. People who suffered from mental illness were also confined in large and overcrowded penal institutions. Juveniles were often confined for behaviors that we’re not criminal simply because there were no other options. Children and youth ended up in jails and penitentiaries because of poverty.

During the 19th century, reformers began to oppose the practice of housing children with adults in prisons. The House of Refuge was opened in New York City in 1825. Illinois established a separate juvenile court in 1899 that required the separation of juveniles from adults when incarcerated. Legislative action barred the detention of children under the age of 12 in jails, a practice that eventually became widespread across the nation.

Reform, training and industrial schools were established across the nation in an attempt to provide for the needs of children and youth. They were generally quite large congregate living institutions with regimented activities and programs.

By the middle of the 20th century, public concern grew about the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. In the 1960’s the Supreme Court made a series of decisions that formalized juvenile courts and provided more due process to youth charged with crimes. Formal hearings were required in situations where youth were transferred to adult court systems. In the late 1980s many states passed harsh laws in response to the public perception that juvenile crime was on the rise and that courts were too lenient. Several states passed punitive laws that included mandatory sentences and automatic adult court transfer for certain crimes.

For a variety of reasons, since the 1990s youth crime rates have plummeted across the nation. The punitive juvenile justice practices of the 1980s and 1990s have been proven to be ineffective. Systematic reforms in the juvenile justice system has reduced institutional confinement. 19th century style reform schools have been closed. Community-based interventions have been instituted that have proven to be far more effective.

The system isn’t perfect. Police are still faced with issues of what to do with youth who are charged with crime. Preventing crime and helping troubled youth to avoid poor decisions has proven to be far more effective than punishment after the crime has occurred.

For a few years, I served as chaplain to the staff of Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center, a detention facility for youth aged 12 to 21 who need to be placed in a safe facility after being charged with a crime. Youth who must be detained as the result of criminal conviction are also detained at the center. The center provides a wide range of services to youth. Case managers learn the stories and backgrounds of individual youth and help to design individual educational plans. Teachers work to help youth keep up with schooling and work towards high school graduation or earning their GED. Opportunities for physical exercise and recreation are designed to allow youth to gain social skills through supervised play.

The facility was designed to house many more juveniles. However, continuing reforms are resulting in decreasing numbers of youth who need the specific services of the detention center. As soon as possible, detained youth are transferred to other programs. Adjacent to the center is a center for homeless and runaway youth. Short term services provide for youth to make the transition back into family and community-based living situations.

Because the facility is small, the youth served become known by the staff as individuals. They are treated with dignity and respect. They are offered opportunities to learn and grow despite their controlled situation. It is, however, a serious and secure facility. It has locked doors and security systems to make sure that youth remain within the facility and are protected from each other. Violent outbursts are met with sift and direct responses. Youth who need to be separated from others are placed in secure cells.

As chaplain, I learned of the care and dedication of the staff who serve the youth in the facility. I also learned what a challenging job it is to serve in the facility. We all want safety and security in our homes. While the courts work to provide effective responses to crime, institutions are needed to provide for the safety and security of youth who have committed crimes. The adults who work in these institutions develop a specific set of skills for protecting the youth who live in the facility. It is a tough job and the people who do those jobs are dedicated professionals.

Gracious God, we know that you care for all of the children and youth of this world and that your love extends to those youth who have made poor choices and who have committed crimes that have caused harm to others. You do not abandon those who are incarcerated. We also know, that you have given us the task of reaching out to those in jail. In the Gospel of Matthew read of the judgment of nations. Those judged will ask, “When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The answer comes, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Help us, dear God, to reach out to those members of your family who are in need. May we never forget the youth who are detained. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!