Uncertainty, Angst Over Juvenile Standards as PREA Deadline Looms

Many juvenile justice officials are expressing a mix of confusion and apprehension about juvenile standards included in an act meant to protect prisoners from sexual violence at the hands of guards or other inmates.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) will require states to comply with a laundry list of standards aimed at reducing inmate-on-inmate and guard-on-inmate sexual violence. States that fail to comply with those conditions could lose federal funding from the Department of Justice.

The Justice Department finally issued proposed standards that would serve as the backbone of PREA in 2011, eight years after it was signed into law, and those standards were finalized in May of 2012. According to those standards, the implementation deadline is August 20.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that the total cost of all secure facilities complying with PREA would be $6.9 billion over the next 14 years, nearly $2 billion of which would be juvenile facilities. There are more than three dozen PREA standards that are specific to juvenile justice systems and facilities, all of which are briefly explained in a Justice Department brief published in May.

The uncertainty on juvenile justice standards comes down to a few issues:

New Staff Ratios in Juvenile Facilities

The rules require juvenile facilities to maintain a minimum staffing ratio of one guard to eight juveniles during waking hours and one-to-16 during sleeping hours. The ratios included in the rules are less stringent than those of 12 states.

But for the other 38 states, hiring more line staff might prove difficult in tough economic times.

At a juvenile justice conference in Las Vegas last October, Deidra Fergerson‘s eyes opened wide when she heard about the new ratios.

“Everything they’re saying I believe in,” said Fergerson, corrections supervisor for the San Bernardino County Probation Department. “It makes a big difference because [the minors] are able to get more of a direct relationship with the staff,” said Ferguson. “But it’s also a big strain on the budget.”

The ratio on the treatment side of the county’s juvenile center is six to one, Fergerson said, but the larger wing staffs at 10 to one.

The juvenile section reads as though Justice anticipates the potential for changes down the line. Despite the fact that PREA rules have been subjected to rounds of public feedback over nine years, Justice said it “seeks additional comment on this aspect of the standards, and may make changes if warranted in light of public comments received.”

The rules also give states until October of 2017 to comply with the staffing ratios.

Separation in Adult Facilities

The rules require adult jails and prisons to house anyone under the age of 18 in a unit without adults. Teen inmates must also be sight- and sound-separated from adults in any environment outside the housing unit, unless guards are able to directly supervise all of the teens at all times.

And, the rules state, facilities cannot accomplish this separation by placing teens in isolation, a practice linked to mental health crises and suicide.

The most recent figures from the Department of Justice estimates that in 2009, approximately 2,778 juveniles were incarcerated in state prisons and 7,218 were held in local jails.

It is this group of juvenile offenders – who are either transferred to the adult system or are considered adults by state statute – for which PREA standards will have the most impact. Despite comprising one percent of jail inmates, juveniles represented 21 percent of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 and 13 percent in 2006.

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”

Keeping juveniles completely separate from adults will be difficult in overcrowded facilities that do not have enough space to create a youth-only wing. It will also be tricky for small facilities to separate juveniles without isolating them, which is not allowed under PREA standards.

Campaign for Youth Justice CEO Liz Ryan has argued that for these reasons, state and local systems should consider placing juveniles transferred to the adult system in juvenile facilities until they turn 18. That is also the notion supported by PREA’s bipartisan authors on the House side, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

Oversight

Last week, on the final day of a major juvenile justice conference held by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the workshops included a session meant to inform attendees about what the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) means for juvenile facilities.

An exchange from the workshop that nicely summarizes where juvenile systems are with understanding how PREA is regulated:

“So, did that answer your question?” one of the panelists asked a man from Montana, who asked about federal penalties related to the new standards.

“No” the man said, “but it sounds like there isn’t really an answer yet.”

It is not incumbent on states to actually live up to PREA, but as with most federal standards, the threat of docking federal funds is used to coerce compliance.

In this case, states that fail to comply with PREA face a five percent cut to “any Department of Justice grant funds that the State would otherwise receive for prison purposes.”

What exactly is included in that pot? Center for Children’s Law and Policy Deputy Director, Dana Shoenberg, one of the presenters on PREA at the Casey conference, said it had not been specified yet.

And even before the penalty universe is known, she said, “there are rumors that some states will not comply and just give up federal funds.”

Also up in the air, Shoenberg told the audience, is who exactly at the Justice Department is responsible for monitoring state compliance with PREA. In all likelihood it would be some division of the Office of Justice Programs, Shoenberg guessed.

What is known, she said, is that states will have to hire outside auditors to assess compliance in one-third of its facilities each year.

Ryann Blackshere is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. John Kelly, editor-in-chief, also contributed to this story.

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