Criminal Neglect | CASAColumbia

Criminal Neglect

Criminal Neglect

January 15, 2005

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr. and Charles W. Colson

"... A top-to-bottom overhaul of the nation's juvenile justice systems is mandatory if these [troubled youngsters] ever are to avoid becoming adult crime statistics."

ONE OF US has seen prison from the inside out, serving time for a Watergate-related crime-and has visited 600 correction facilities over the past 30 years. The other has spent many years studying the link between crime and substance abuse. Although we come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and have vastly different life experiences, on 1 issue, at least, we have arrived at the same bleak conclusion: The U.S. is criminally negligent when it comes to children caught up in the nation's juvenile justice systems.

In October 2004, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA*) at Columbia University released a report based on a five-year study. Criminal Neglect: Substance Abuse, Juvenile Justice and the Children Left Behind is the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of substance abuse and juvenile justice. Among its most significant findings: The road to juvenile crime and incarceration is paved with drugs and alcohol. 4 out of every 5 children and teen arrestees are under the influence of alcohol or drugs while committing their crimes, test positive for drugs, are arrested for an alcohol or drug offense, admit to having substance abuse and addiction problems, or share some combination of these characteristics. While the most commonly used drugs are alcohol and marijuana, a significant number of kids test positive for cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates.

Drug and alcohol abuse is implicated in all types of juvenile crime, including almost 70% of violent offenses, 72% of property offenses, and more than 80% of other offenses, such as vandalism and disorderly conduct.

The problem is, virtually nothing is being done to stem this disturbing tide. CASA found that some 1,900,000 of the 2,400,000 juvenile arrestees are drug and alcohol abusers or addicts. Yet, only 68,600 of them-a mere 3.6%-receive any treatment. Moreover, substance abuse is not the sole problem that goes unaddressed in these kids' lives. Many come from broken and troubled families, have been abused or neglected, live in crime-infested neighborhoods, and struggle with learning disabilities and mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.

State juvenile justice systems were created more than 100 years ago to protect and reform young people who commit crimes-to provide care, custody, and discipline in a way that closely would approximate that which should be given by parents. This is the goal, but the reality is a grim, modern version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Instead of providing care and rehabilitation, many facilities are nothing more than colleges of criminality for these kids.

Just look at the sorry state of affairs:

Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction go untreated. While 44% of the 10- to 17-year olds arrested in the past year already meet the clinical definition of substance abuse or dependence (while 28% meet the clinical test of hard-core addiction), less than 4% receive treatment. These arrested juveniles are 6 times more likely to be substance abusers and 8 times more likely to be hooked on drugs and alcohol than their contemporaries.

Mental health problems go unheeded. 3 out of 4 of all incarcerated juveniles are likely to suffer a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, yet mental health services are scarce. Kids in the "system" are almost 5 times as likely to have a mental health problem than their peers. Thousands of children are held in juvenile detention simply because no mental health treatment is available.

Learning disabilities and special education needs are not addressed. As many as 80% of jailed juveniles have learning disabilities. They need special education classes, yet most programs do not meet even the lowest state criteria in this area.

Lack of spiritual grounding. Almost half of arrested kids never attend religious services. Such teens are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, binge drink and use marijuana and other illicit drugs compared to those who consider religion an important part of their lives. Research has found that religious commitment and spiritual practice can help prevent substance abuse and addiction while aiding in recovery. Yet, CASA found no program that provides for the spiritual enrichment of incarcerated youngsters, such as the Prison Fellowship Ministries initiative, which has proven so successful with adult inmates.

More girls are entering the system. Although most juvenile arrests involve males, the number of females entering detention jumped 50% between 1990-99, compared with a 4% rise for males. Females are more likely to be charged with crimes such as prostitution, running away from home, truancy, and curfew violations.

Cases referred to juvenile court are twice as likely to involve blacks as whites. Black juveniles are more likely to be arrested for committing violent or drug crimes, while white juveniles are more likely to be arrested for committing alcohol-related offenses.

Facilities are overcrowded and conditions inhumane. 40% of juvenile facilities are severely overcrowded, and children often are mistreated and abused. States across the nation-including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, and New York have come under fire for mistreating juvenile detainees.

  • At a facility in Mississippi, girls have been stripped naked and placed in the "dark room," a locked, windowless, isolation cell with a drain in the floor that serves as a toilet; youth report being hog-tied, pole-shackled, and pepper-sprayed
  • In Nevada, corrections officials punched youths in the chest, shoved them against lockers and walls, threw them to the floor, and smashed their heads in doors
  • In a Connecticut facility, juveniles have been pulled by the hair, jerked by the ears, and kicked in the ribs by corrections officials

One of us (Colson) has walked the cellblocks and looked at the vacant, hopeless expressions of kids staring through the bars. Instead of attending to the needs of our most desperate children, we are writing them off, warehousing them in detention centers, or sending them back to their troubled families and neighborhoods-only to register them later as crime statistics.

We ignore the needs of juvenile arrestees at our own peril. At least 30% of adult inmates serving time for felony crimes were first locked up as juveniles. Like substance abuse itself, substance-related crime can run in the family, creating a vicious spiral descending into deeper addiction and more serious illegal activity. Incarcerated adults are likely to be children of parents who were in prison; these adults are themselves the fathers and mothers of 2,500,000 offspring. Kids of jailed parents are likelier than children whose parents have not been locked up to end up in prison.

80% of the adult men and women behind bars in the U.S. were high at the time they committed their crimes, stole property to buy drugs, have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, or share some combination of these characteristics. Most began their life of substance abuse and addiction as children and teens.

If Congress, the president, and state governors are serious that "no child be left behind," we must end the neglect of these children who are left the furthest behind.

Here is what we propose:

  • The Federal government should create a model juvenile justice code to set a standard of practices and accountability for states in handling juvenile offenders
  • All those connected with the juvenile justice system-judges, law enforcement officers, various court personnel, etc.-should be trained to recognize and deal with substance involved offenders
  • Diversion programs-such as drug courts-should be extended to juveniles
  • An initiative similar to Prison Fellowship Ministries should be used as a prototype to provide troubled youth with the spiritual support that can make a difference in their lives
  • Proper healthcare, education, and job training programs are a must for those in the juvenile justice system
  • Federal grant programs for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention need to be expanded and such grants have to be conditioned on reform of state systems
  • State and national data need to be compiled to judge the progress in meeting the needs of these children

In short, a top-to-bottom overhaul of the nation's juvenile justice systems is mandatory if these unfortunate youths ever are to avoid becoming adult crime statistics.

If we are not motivated by concern for our most troubled kids, we should at least consider the high cost of ignoring their plight. The CASA report finds that, were society to invest $5,000 for treatment and securing comprehensive services and programs for each of the 123,000 substance-involved juveniles who otherwise would be incarcerated, we would break even on our investment in the first year if just 12% of them stayed in school and remained drug- and crime-free. If we could prevent the crimes and imprisonment of just 12% of adults with juvenile records, there would be 60,000 fewer adult inmates. This would save $18,000,000,000 in criminal justice and health care costs-and do not forget the added economic benefits of employment or the 6,000,000 fewer crimes that would be committed.

Of course, even with all the help in the world, some juveniles still will embark on a life of crime. Yet, the overwhelming proportion of youngsters currently ensnared in juvenile justice systems can grow up to be productive, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens and responsible parents. This, however, only can happen if we stop looking the other way. Here is a problem we can fix; not to do so would be a crime.

30 years ago, Charles W. Colson and Joseph A. Califano, Jr., were at each other's throats. Colson, the White House "hatchet man ", was busy defending Pres. Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Califano, meanwhile, was going after Nixon, filing the lawsuit against the Committee to Reelect the President and representing The Washington Post during Watergate. Today, these men are brothers-in-arms in their concern for youngsters caught up in American juvenile justice systems.

State juvenile justice systems were created more than 100 years ago to protect and reform young people who commit crimes-to provide care, custody, and discipline in a way that closely would approximate that which should be given by parents. This is the goal, but the reality is a grim, modern version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Instead of providing care and rehabilitation, many facilities are nothing more than colleges of criminality for these kids. Here, Califano and Colson provide some statistical facts depicting the state of the juvenile justice system in the US.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is President of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, New York. He was Pres. Lyndon Johnson's Assistant for Domestic Affairs and Pres. Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Charles W. Colson is Chairman and Founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. He served as Pres. Richard Nixon's White House Counsel, and is the author of several books.

This article was published in the January 2005 issue of USA TODAY.

*The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University is neither affiliated with, nor sponsored by, the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (also known as "CASA") or any of its member organizations with the name of "CASA."

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