Group Disputes Justice Dept. Numbers on Youths Victimized in Adult Lockup

A national group advocating for the removal of juveniles from adult facilities is disputing a Justice Department report released today that finds juveniles are sexually victimized no more often than adults in jails and prisons.

“We are challenging this study,” said Liz Ryan, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ). “We are challenging the way they made these conclusions.”

A 2006 study published by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that one in five victims of sexual transgressions in adult jails was under the age of 18, despite the fact that minors made up about 1 percent of the total jail population.

The BJS study released today – Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12 – uses interviews with a sample of inmates to determine the rates at which inmate-on-inmate and staff-on-inmate transgressions occur, according to the inmates’ reports.

For the first time, the survey teased out interviews with juvenile inmates, who comprise about 1 percent of the population in jails and prisons.

About five percent of juveniles in both settings reported experiencing some sexual victimization, either at the hands of other inmates or prison staff. The rates of victimization were higher for juveniles than adults in both jails and prisons, but not by much.

“Juveniles….did not report significantly higher rates of sexual victimization than adult inmates,” the report said.

The rate for reported offenses in jail varies widely from figures in another series that BJS does to gauge sexual offenses behind bars, which relies on the reports of correctional departments.

The 2005 version of “Sexual Violence Reported to Correctional Authorities” found that 21 percent of all sex victims in adult jails were under the age of 18. The 2006 iteration showed 13 percent of victims were under the age of 18.

Both figures are derived from a smaller subset of reports, as not all correctional agencies reported demographic information to BJS. Conversely, the prison victimization rates reported by juveniles in the study released today actually indicate higher rates than those reported by correctional authorities in 2005 and 2006.

BJS stopped reporting the age breakdowns of victims after the 2006 study.

“Kids are still at greatest risk” in adult facilities, Ryan said. “All of the previous research, and the experiences of these kids says this.”

She cited four methodological concerns that CFYJ had about the study:

  • Only 1,211 juveniles were interviewed in jails, based on the premise that this would represent approximately 5,000 jailed juveniles. Ryan said that this is based on a one-day census, and that the number of juveniles who are locked up in a jail each year is estimated by watchdog groups to be about 100,000.
  • There was no distinction made between juveniles in a facility’s general population and those housed in protective custody or isolation. While the latter group is less likely to be victimized, there are other mental health concerns that arise from the isolation of inmates.
  • BJS only included 16- and 17-year-olds in its examination of juvenile rates. Most, but not all, of juvenile inmates in adult facilities are in that age group.

Ryan also said it is possible and even likely that youths were hesitant to report victimization, even under the guarantee of anonymity.

About 80 percent of juveniles who reported victimization said they experienced force or the threat of it to coerce them into the act, according to BJS, but only 15 percent of juveniles reported the victimization before this study.

“The large number of kids who didn’t tell anyone else gives you suggestion that there is underreporting on this survey,” Ryan said.

BJS did not respond to a call by The Chronicle to respond to the campaign’s concerns. Ryan said in her discussion with the department about the study, “they don’t believe there is a problem with the methodology or sample size.”

The high rates of juvenile victimization in previous BJS studies spurred special protections for them in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003.

The standards for PREA were finalized last year, and 2013 is the first year that states will be audited for compliance with the standards. They require adult corrections systems to keep under-18 inmates in separate living quarters, away from adults, and further require that systems not use isolation cells to accomplish this.

Ryan, and other advocates for juvenile offenders, intend to persuade corrections systems that the simplest response to this standard is to keep them in juvenile facilities until at least their 18th birthday.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.