Each year jailhouse doors slam behind a half million American juveniles, sealing them into a world of violence and homosexual rape presided over by adult criminals. Charles B. Renfrew, U.S. deputy attorney general, called this jailing of youths with adult offenders " a national catastrophe."
Renfrew testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee to investigate juvenile deliquency when it met last spring to reconsider the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. That act expires this year if not renewed. The Senate passed the bill in May, but it still is awaiting action in the House. The program survives now on a continuing resolution pending final approval.
Originally introduced by the now-defeated Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), the legislation was prompted by the fact that arrests of juveniles under age 18 for violent crimes such as murder, robbery and rape had risen 216 percent over figures for the previous decade. Congress took note that in 1974 these juveniles were arrested for 51 percent of all property crimes, 23 percent of violent crimes and 45 percent of all serious crimes.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act has provided federal leadership and coordination of resources to begin programs at the state and local levels for the prevention and treatment of juvenile delinquency.
One targeted concern in 1974 was the treatment of juveniles taken into custody. Too often ware-housed in adult detention facilities, the young people were, in effect, handed over to adult offenders awaiting trail and with other adults already convicted and serving sentences.
Renfrew testified that 88 percent of juveniles locked up with adults were boys and girls charged with minor or property crimes. Some were not charged with any crime, and many of their offenses would not be criminal if the offenders were adults.
American jails are unsafe for adults and juveniles. Within their walls occur some of the worst crimes perpetrated anywhere in this country. It is a culture unto itself, where rules imposed by the strongest inmates become the law.
Newcomers are quickly initiated into the realities of life in America's jail and workhouses. Processed by experienced inmates who are quick to pass on jailhouse facts of life, the juvenile inmate is deprived of his civilian clothes. Often kept naked for a long period of time during the first day, the juvenile is frequently put on review, like an unwilling participant in a beauty contest. Older inmates frequently select their new sexual partners then.
Usually after this long, frightening initial exposure to life behind bars, the initiation is complete; the newcomer submits or is subjected to brutal beatings and gang rapes that often require hospitalization.
Women's institutions are as bad as those housing men, because women inmates are as menacing and dangerous as their male counterparts. In both men's and women's jails, violent assults are not limited to sexual attacks. Cell blocks are literally lethal places.
This dehumanization process takes place daily in our correction facilities under the eyes of jailers and police who are charged with the responsibility of protecting the safety of the inmates. Responding to criticisms that they look the other way and permit this jungle atmosphere, custodians complain they are powerless to prevent it.
Far too often, jailers tolerate the brutality and perversion because they have found it easier to maintain a kind of order in the institutions if the most powerful inmates are in charge. Thus, the most loathesome individuals on the outside become the power brokers inside, exacting protection, determining who may do what to others and even determining who is to live or die.
We should not be surprised by Deputy Attorney General Renfrew's statistics that show the sucicide rate for juveniles detained in adult facilities to be seven times higher than for youths in juvenile detention homes and that others suffer emotional and mental harm that affects their behavior long after they leave jail. Ultimately, the American public pays the price for the conditions experienced by juvenile offenders.
Juvenile courts were established at the beginning of this century on the firm premise that juveniles in trouble should not be treated like criminals but should be treated instead.
Subject to juvenile court jurisdiction are not only youngsters who have committed crimes but also those children who are unruly, truant or who have run away from home. Founders of the juvenile court movement argued that if these young persons were under the firm, wise guidance of judges presiding over juvenile cases, they would straighten out and not end up as adult criminals.
While many holes have been poked in this founding philosophy, juvenile offenders have gained improved legal status. Yet, great numbers are housed in adult jails, learning how to be adult criminals ready to prey on the general community when they are released.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act did prohibit federal authorities from detaining youths in adult facilities. Renfrew proposed that the 1980 extension of the act carry the prohibition to the state and local levels.
The bill enacted by the Senate did not extend the prohibition to the states, although the committee report indicates that the Senate's intent always has been to do so. The pending House bill does contain an amendment specificially applying the prohibition to the states.
Compliance at the state level would be overseen by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention which has administered the act since its original adoption.