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Juvenile Justice: Institutions - The Legal Rights Of Juveniles In Confinement

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A growing body of law from past litigation against juvenile correctional facilities and relevant federal statutes specify the minimum environmental conditions that juvenile institutions must meet. Under these laws, confined juveniles have the right to protection from violent residents, abusive staff, unsanitary living quarters, excessive isolation, and unreasonable restraints. Youths in confinement must also receive adequate medical and mental health care, education (including special education for youths with disabilities), access to legal counsel, and access to family communication, recreation, exercise, and other programs (Puritz and Scali).

The sharp rise in commitments to juvenile correctional facilities during the last decade has exacerbated the living conditions in facilities where many youths are held. Investigations of these institutions by youth advocacy groups as well as the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department have documented significant deficiencies in living space, security, control of suicidal behavior, health care, education and treatment services, emergency preparedness, and access to legal counsel. In 1996, the American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center released a report titled "A Call for Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings." The report revealed numerous deficiencies in both the access to and the quality of representation juveniles receive at every point in the juvenile court process (Puritz et al.). The results of inadequate representation can be seen in the disproportionate representation of minority youths and nonviolent property and drug offenders in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. As the bar association looked into the shortcomings of the process of justice for juveniles, other international and national advocacy groups, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The Youth Law Center in San Francisco, and the Juvenile Rights Center in Philadelphia, have investigated and reported on widespread abuses of adolescents in juvenile detention and correctional facilities throughout the country.

Since 1995, Human Rights Watch Children Rights Project has published devastating reports on constitutional abuses of children in confinement facilities in Louisiana, Georgia, and Colorado. The international organization has documented abuses of youths in the Louisiana Department of Correction's four juvenile post-adjudication correctional facilities to include physical abuse of residents by staff, improper restraints with handcuffs, and youths kept in isolation for excessive periods of time.

A scathing report on abusive, overcrowded, and dangerous conditions in detention and correctional facilities, including boot camp programs, in Georgia prompted the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate facilities operated by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. The Justice Department's investigation, conducted under the authority of a federal law called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), substantiated alleged abuses in unconstitutional living conditions and the state's failure to properly educate confined youths and inattention to their psychological and mental health needs.

In 1999, the State of Georgia avoided a lawsuit by the Justice Department and entered into a "Memorandum of Understanding" with the federal government to improve conditions in the numerous institutional deficiencies cited in the report. A monitor appointed by the Justice Department currently oversees the state's "Plan of Improvement."

The Justice department investigated very few juvenile facilities during the 1980s, but as reports of abuses that resulted from crowded conditions mounted, the federal government stepped-up its investigations of juvenile detention and correctional facilities in the 1990s. As of November 1997, the Civil Rights Division had investigated three hundred institutions under CRIPA. Seventy-three of these institutions were juvenile detention and correctional facilities. As of 2001, the federal executive or judicial branches were monitoring confinement practices in several jurisdictions including Georgia, Louisiana, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, and South Dakota.

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