The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 28, 2000

Juvenile 'reform'
only hurts

Nonviolent, young
inmates leave state's justice system physically and emotionally scarred. Alternatives are needed.

By Rick McDevitt
There has been a lot of discussion about the need to expand the construction of juvenile prisons. But building more prisons is not the answer. The current juvenile justice system is not reforming children; it is actually hurting them. Last year, within the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, there were 4,600 inmate-on-inmate beatings and almost 600 staff-on-inmate beatings. Less than 10 percent of all juvenile crime is violent, yet large numbers of nonviolent offenders are in cells with murderers and rapists.

Recent data shows that black children are six times as likely to be jailed than white children for the same crime and with similar offense backgrounds. White children are arrested three times more often than black children in Georgia. But, as the process moves forward, more black kids wind up in jail. Currently, 70percent of the children in our McDevitt youth prisons and detention facilities are black, Yet, crimes committed by African-American youth are not more serious. In fact 75 percent of our children in j ad are there for nonviolent property-related offenses.

A sordid track record in Georgia
The state is building more prisons to provide jobs for local residents - not rehabilitation for youth. Jailed youths are not being rehabilitated. They are being raped and abused; they are attempting suicide, receiving little or no medical attention, suffering mentally, receiving inadequate education and insufficient rehabilitative services. In fact, it costs approximately $40,000 a year to lock up one child in jail.

Jolting images: The Georgia Alliance for Children in advertisements, to focus attention on abuses in the states juvenile justice system.

In 1997, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that the state juvenile justice facilities were "grossly substandard," "egregious" and "unconstitutional." According to the report, Georgia's juvenile facilities lack enough space to separate younger, more vulnerable youths from older, potentially more predatory youths. In one incident, a child held for violation of probation was housed with three youths accused of armed robbery and aggravated assault and was beaten and sexually assaulted without intervention from the staff.

As a result of low staffing levels, a male staff member was able to sexually assault a 14-year-old female resident after persuading the only other staff member on the shift to take a nap.

We must stop hurting our children.

These youths return to our communities much worse for their experience. This happens because almost nothing is spent on community-based programs, the smart alternative to the current juvenile justice system. These community-based programs would get to children's lives sooner, rather than later.

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