Criminalizing Kids

Published — April 22, 2015 Updated — June 16, 2015 at 9:32 am ET

Hearing airs charges that states took grant money while violating laws

Center stories cited in Judiciary Committee probe of juvenile-justice programs


At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, federal employees and child advocates argued that states have been allowed to take juvenile-justice grant money while violating laws against jailing kids for minor infractions.

“The true victims in all of this are the children who come into contact with inadequate juvenile-justice systems,” said Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee.

Among those testifying at the hearing was University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin, who was featured in a 2014 Center for Public Integrity investigation into children who were shackled and jailed in Knox County, Tenn. , after being summoned to court for truancy.

As in most states, truancy is not a crime in Tennessee, Rivkin said. Missing school is a “status offense,” an infraction that only a minor can commit, like running away. Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974 status offenders cannot be jailed—unless, based on a loophole, the children are first clearly afforded the appointment of legal counsel and given ample opportunity to comply with instructions given to them by a court.

Rivkin told the Senate panel that he and other attorneys have represented truants with mental-health and learning problems who were jailed before the lawyers met with the minors or began representing them.

“One of our clients threatened suicide, following her release from the detention facility, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital by her parents,” Rivkin said, describing the story of a 15-year-old Knox County girl whose experience was featured in the Center report. Rivkin submitted the story to the committee as part of his testimony.

“In the juvenile jail,” Rivkin told the committee, “our clients were shackled, indiscriminately drug tested, asked to strip, given orange jail jump-suits, and placed in a facility that held serious juvenile offenders. They were not screened for mental-health problems.”

University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin argues that prosecuted truants should have right to appointed counsel earlier in the process.
 Lincoln Memorial University/Flickr CC

Rivkin testified Tuesday that in 2013 he asked officials at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention—part of the U.S. Justice Department—to look into documents he had obtained suggesting that Knox County might have committed scores of violations of federal rules against detention of status offenders.

The federal official, Rivin said, “stated that he was not interested in our data” as part of a subsequent federal audit that examined only a four-month period of juvenile detention in Tennessee.

Grassley’s interest in scrutinizing the quality of audits stemmed from whistleblower accounts alleging that certain states had been faking detention data and were still getting grants.

The 1974 juvenile justice act spells out rules that states must follow to receive federal grants designed to help keep troubled youth out of the criminal justice system. If audits identify violations, then grants to states are supposed to be cut, based on a formula, if not halted altogether.

“The law says that the federal money comes with strings attached,” Grassley said. “Specifically, states must comply with four core requirements in order to qualify for the grants.”

The core requirements include a prohibition on the detention of status offenders, such as truants or runaways, and a prohibition on placing minors in adult jails, with narrow exceptions. A third requirement prohibits placing minors who do end up in adult jails adjacent to or inside cells with adults. A fourth requirement demands that states show they have programs in place and are making progress toward reducing the disproportionate involvement of ethnic minorities with the juvenile-justice system.

In January of 2014, Grassley said, an inspector general oversight report found that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention had failed to penalize the state of Wisconsin for violations—even though a state employee had admitted that fraudulent data was submitted to show compliance with the core requirements.

Grassley wrote letters to U.S. Justice Department officials demanding responses to allegations of additional “mismanagement” in the states of Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Puerto Rico.

A Center report released this month detailing the arrests and prosecution of young students in Virginia—many of them children with special needs—was submitted to the Senate Committee as part of the record generated by the hearing.

“To its credit,” Grassley said, “the (Justice) Department has now owned up to its problems” and is revamping its policies for ensuring that states comply with rules and merit federal grants.

Testifying Tuesday, Karol Mason, assistant attorney general of justice programs at the Justice Department, said that officials have identified “errors and systemic flaws” in how states are audited and are making changes.

Mason said the methods used to monitor states are “old and outdated” and standards for measuring compliance have been vague.

Rivkin said that the current auditing system is “one of the least transparent systems of any federal program that I’ve encountered. Public access is limited. Bureaucratic language abounds. Without greater transparency and clarity,” he said, the intent of the 1974 act “suffers.”

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