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Juvenile Justice: Institutions - Institutions Today

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The first juvenile correctional institutions in this country were located in rural, bucolic settings based on the belief that exposure of urban youth to the wholesome agrarian environment would ameliorate the corrupting influences of the city. States continue to build juvenile facilities far from the communities where the confined youths live but for very different reasons from the founding intention. The public's fear of young offenders has been reinforced by negative media coverage and elected official's political posturing over the relatively small number of violent juvenile offenders. Facility planners are customarily confronted with "not in my backyard" opposition when searching for prospective facility locations. Consequently, juvenile correctional facilities are often constructed long distances from youths' families, their local schools' and employment opportunities, making reintegration of young offenders into their home communities difficult. This is the case in states such as California, Maine, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Texas. Delaware is an exception as both its pretrial detention and juvenile correctional facilities are situated on a campus in a suburban community just beyond the city limits of Wilmington where most of the confined youths live.

The first institutions were freestanding buildings that housed youths in congregate style, mixing older and younger children and criminal and status offenders. Then followed a campus setting with cottages and cottage parents to normalize the environment. Today many states, such as Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio, continue to follow the campus model where youths are classified by offense type and special programming needs, such as alcohol and substance abuse, sex offending, or mental health problems and are placed in cottages or living units. Youths sleep under one roof and participate in group-counseling in the living units in the evening, but move about the campus in groups under the supervision of counselors or officers to attend school in a separate school building, eat in a cafeteria, recreate in a gymnasium or on outdoor ball fields and courts, and attend services in a chapel.

Juvenile institutions constructed since the mid-1990s are self-contained buildings that house living units and programming areas under one roof. The building design consists of administrative offices near the building entrance, a central-services area that contains classrooms, medical facilities, kitchen and dining area, and a gymnasium. Living space is divided into units or pods with individual rooms and common rooms for counseling sessions and evening-recreational activities. Most juvenile correctional institutions are now enclosed by a high inward-curving chain link fence with barbed wire or razor ribbon atop the structure.

A handful of states, such as Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Missouri, operate small secure treatment facilities for serious person and chronic property offenders in lieu of large, custodial institutions. Some of these facilities accommodate as few as fifteen youths, while others are designed for thirty to fifty young offenders. The treatment offered at these programs is much more intensive and individualized than what can be offered at institutions with two hundred or more beds. Staff has the time to get to know youths, and to learn more about their problems, offense history, and needs in order to design and carry out comprehensive treatment interventions. Small class sizes permit teachers to tailor instruction to the educational deficiencies of underachieving students, many of whom attended school irregularly or dropped out all together. Additionally, these smaller programs conduct appropriately sized group-counseling sessions that deal with a young offender's underlying issues, such as the effects of child neglect and abuse, impulsive and aggressive acting-out, alcohol and substance abuse, and other behavioral problems.

Small, appropriately staffed rehabilitation programs tend to have fewer behavior management problems. Consequently, violent incidents, use of force by staff, use of mechanical restraints and isolation, and rates of serious injury to youths and staff are significantly reduced in these facilities.

Recognizing the benefits of smaller treatment programs on youth behavior management and staff morale, administrators of larger institutions in states such as Connecticut, Ohio, and Maine, have begun to institute unit management in the living cottages or units. Under this arrangement, direct care and clinical staff are formed into treatment teams and assigned to a cottage or unit with responsibility for designing and carrying out treatment plans for the youths residing there. This approach allows the large institutional population to be broken down into manageable components. Youths are customarily classified based on the risks and needs they present at admission and assigned to homogeneous units. Classification can be based on a combination of factors, such as age, maturity, offense history and criminal sophistication or on the specialized nature of a youth's underlying problems, such as alcohol and substance abuse, sex offending and mental health problems. Unit management brings the distinctive benefits of small programs to the larger institution.

Since reaching an all-time high in 1994, juvenile crime has fallen for five consecutive years. The rate of juvenile arrests for Violent Crime Index Offenses—murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—declined by 36 percent in the five-year period. The juvenile murder arrest rate fell 68 percent to 1,400 in 1999 from 3,800 in 1993.

Despite this significant drop in juvenile crime, especially violent crime from 1995 forward, juvenile court judges continue to commit adolescents to state juvenile correctional agencies for placement in institutions in unprecedented numbers. Crowding in these institutions, which results in youths sleeping on floors in hallways and in gymnasiums, continues to worsen the working and living environment for staff and youths. Today, correctional administrators face a host of complex problems, such as a surge in youths with serious mental health problems, high staff turnover, and insufficient training programs for direct-care staff.

Increase in mentally ill youths. The closing of state-operated psychiatric hospitals for children throughout the country during the 1990s and the introduction of managed behavioral health care to cut the cost of providing mental health services to patients has forced many emotionally troubled and mentally ill children into the juvenile correctional system. An estimated 20 percent or more than twenty thousand incarcerated juveniles are seriously emotionally disturbed. The juvenile justice system is unprepared to care for and treat mentally ill youths. Failure to screen and assess the special needs of these youths could result in serious harm or treatment that exacerbates the illness. Co-mingling the mentally ill with serious offenders contributes to the increase in disruptive behavior in programs. Additionally, staff, unaware of the side effects of certain mood-altering medications administered to these youths, impose sanctions for their acting-out behavior, which results in unfair treatment of these youths. Many emotionally disturbed or mentally ill youths placed in juvenile correctional facilities are not receiving the specialized treatment they require, nor are plans being developed ensure appropriate aftercare services for them upon release from the institution.

High staff turnover. Direct-care staff, who supervise confined youths in their cottages or units, are called youth workers or juvenile correctional officers. These workers are assigned to one of three shifts (7:00 A.M.–3:00 P.M., 3:00 P.M.–11:00 P.M., and 11:00 P.M.–7:00 A.M.). Their starting salaries range from a low of $12,500 in Montana to a high of $30,000 in California, with the average being $20,500. The number of staff assigned to supervise youths varies greatly from facility to facility, with one youth worker responsible for ten youths being the ideal, but in most institutions the ratio is one youth worker for fifteen to twenty youths. Working in overcrowded buildings with troubled, disruptive youths contributes to extremely stressful conditions for staff. Recent surveys of direct-care staff indicated that 20 percent feared for their safety while supervising youths in living units. Absentee rates soar under such conditions, forcing staff to work extra shifts. Staff morale suffers and ultimately leads to high rates of turnover among those staff who are responsible for the day-to-day care of the youths, role modeling, and doling out punishments and rewards.

Insufficient training for staff. Training for direct-care staff in institutions throughout the country varies greatly in the number of hours of pre-service and in-service training required, the quality of the curricula, and trainers teaching the courses. In 1994 only a handful of state juvenile correctional programs had training academies. Today thirty-three states have academies that train, test, and certify staff as youth workers. The ACA Standards for Juvenile Training Schools state that all new juvenile care workers receive 40 hours of training before they supervise youths, an additional 120 hours of training during their first year of employment, and an additional 40 hours of training each subsequent year of employment. A survey of 110 juvenile correctional facilities in 1997 indicates that the average number of pre-service and first-year training for juvenile correctional workers was 102 hours. The results from the same survey demonstrate that undertrained staffs in facilities are the ones who get assaulted. In recent years, the high rate of turnover results in many youth care workers receiving a brief orientation and mostly on-the-job training until the next training for new staff is held, which sometimes is not for weeks or months.

The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice is recognized as a leader in its training program for juvenile correctional staff. The training academy is operated out of Eastern Kentucky University's Training Resource Center. All new direct-care staff hired at the state's thirty-five residential treatment facilities (thirty to thirty-five beds) and three pretrial detention facilities begin a ten-week cycle of training at the academy with two weeks in the training facility classroom. This is followed by two weeks on the job, two more weeks in the classroom, back to the job for two more weeks, and the final two weeks in the classroom. Research has shown that attrition rates for staff in the first year had been 37 percent. The professionally conducted training program has been able to stabilize the turnover rate.

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