Big Takeaways from “Getting to Zero,” A Report on Youths in Adult Jails

The data on how many youth are held in adult jails is incredibly murky. “Getting to Zero” attempts to collect what we know on the matter.

“Getting to Zero,” a product of years of work by author Neelum Arya and law students at the UCLA Jail Removal Project, pieces together everything there is to know about one of the biggest blind spots in youth services: how many kids end up in adult jails, where are they, and why are they there?

It is a document with an obvious agenda: as the title reflects, the author is very much of the mind that there should be no person younger than 18 in an adult lockup. But whether you land on that, “Getting to Zero” is just an exhaustive collection of facts and information on a subject that badly needs such a compendium.

Click here to access “Getting to Zero.” Following are some of Youth Services Insider’s takeaways from the report.

There’s Probably a Lot of Juveniles In Adult Jails Each Year

The official one-day count of juveniles in adult jail was 3,700 in 2016, based on the Annual Survey of Jails done by the Justice Department. But using other data sources to project the general turnover in jail, the report projects that conservatively, 32,000 youth are in an adult jail each year.

Neelum Arya, lead author of “Getting to Zero.”

But that might also be conservative. A project in Texas, using public information requests to get a full-year picture of 17-year-olds in adult jails (in Texas, 17-year-olds are considered adults in the eyes of the law), found the real numbers were wildly higher than the Justice Department’s one-day counts.

If the Texas difference is applied to the other three states that treat 17-year-olds as adults, then the annual total of youth in adult jails “could exceed 60,000,” according to the report.

“It is a really hard thing to collect information on because [the total] is changing on a daily basis,” said Arya, the former director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at UCLA School of Law. She said she plans to write a memo to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics about how to better measure the presence of youth in future jail census efforts (the next one is slated for 2019).

“But really, it’s more of a statistical rationale for why we should remove youths entirely,” she said.

Mostly Urban Systems, Mostly Not White Kids

Using Census Bureau data and the 2015 Annual Survey of Jails, the report estimates that 5 percent of youth held in adult jails are in rural counties. This was surprising to YSI. Logic dictates that based on the lack of population in rural areas, they would not be a huge piece of the pie. But when you consider the conventional wisdom that low-population areas are the least likely to have a juvenile detention space nearby, 5 percent is pretty low.

Racial disparities are identified throughout the treatment of juveniles, and adult jailing is no exception. This report, approximating data on adult prisons available through compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, estimates that 88 percent of youth jailed in America are not white.

Three Moves That Could Eliminate Three Quarters of Youth Jailings

According to the research in “Getting to Zero,” three moves made by a handful of states could reduce the number of youths in adult jail by 76 percent.

The first is already happening. New York and North Carolina have already passed laws to raise their age of jurisdiction from 16 up to 18. Once older teens are no longer exposed to adult jail in those states, the report projects a 26 percent decrease in the national total.

Second would be passage of raise-the-age bills in the remaining four states that still include all 17-year-olds in the adult system: Texas, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. If those states raise the age to 18, it could reduce the number of youth in adult jails by 22 percent.

Finally, there are six states where transfer laws and jailing laws permit youth to be housed in adult facilities: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland and Pennsylvania. If those states were to preclude juveniles from being jailed before 18, it would reduce the overall total by 28 percent.

That last group of six reflects what Arya said jumped out to her most in the report’s findings. While a jailing law sets up permission for a system to be able to jail a youth, she said, it seems it is the permission or requirement to transfer youth into criminal court that dominates.

“These are all the states where you have statutory exclusions,” said Arya, referring to transfer laws categorically mandating that youth are tried in adult court for certain offenses. “I believed that state jail laws acted independently from transfer laws. Now I see how much they act together.”

State and local transfer policies also appear to have a profound effect on the length of stay statistics in juvenile facilities. More than 80 percent of the youth in juvenile detention for longer than six months are there awaiting an adult court date, according to the report.

Obviously, these “three moves” really require 10 different state legislatures to act. But all of this does speak to another interesting fact on display in this report …

Most States Don’t Jail Many Youths

Of the youth in adult jails in the 2013 census count, 89 percent were in 15 states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

In fairness, that list encompasses most of the states with in the top 20 by population. But they are certainly not home to nearly 90 percent of the youth who are arrested.

Of those other 35 states, seven had no youth at all in adult jails, and another 16 states had fewer than 10 youth in jail.

Juvenile Reform Does Not Always Equal Jail Removal

More than a quarter-century ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), an effort to use better decision-making processes to lower the juvenile justice system’s reliance on pre-trial detention (the juvenile equivalent of jail). The initiative began with county and city-level projects, and has evolved to take on state-level reform using a base of “model sites” around the country. Casey has expanded the scope of its juvenile justice strategy to include the “deep-end” of juvenile justice, the incarceration of youth in juvenile prisons.

But in at least some of those states, the systems’ interest in juvenile justice reform has not yet widened to encompass their detainment in adult jails. Of the 15 aforementioned states where most juveniles are jailed, nine are active JDAI states.

“Getting to Zero” also identifies the other youth-jailing hotspots outside those 15 states, based on 2013 data, and the list includes Bernalillo County, N.M., as well as the two biggest counties in Nevada (Clark and Washoe). All three of those counties work on JDAI. Bernalillo is one of the initiative’s model sites, and both it and Washoe are working on the recently-added deep-end reforms.

Arya suggested that because many JDAI sites have lowered their juvenile detention populations, and include legislators and judges on the reform teams, they are the most primed to make policy changes that move more youth out of jails and into either detention or community monitoring.

“I’d hope they’d take a copy of my report and ask, ‘How many beds are in my juvenile facility?” Arya said. “Then, tell me why we can’t move youth in jails into them. Multnomah [another model JDAI site] did that.”

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 961 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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