Adult jails: they aren't made to fit America's youth

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Unfortunately, it often takes dramatic incidents to call attention to a need for reform. The murder of Kitty Genovese in a Long Island community in 1964 -- within the sight of scores of onlookers -- sparked questions regarding the responsibility of witnesses to crimes.

However, states have only recently begun to pass laws requiring people who see felonies to intervene or call police. Missd Genovese has become a symbol to advocates for witness intervention. Earlier this month, a national conference memorializing her plight was held at Fordham University. A less well-known case -- but one which could also become an important symbol for reform -- involves 17 -year old Christopher Peterman, an Idaho youth who was murdered in jail.

The issue here is whether young people should be imprisoned alongside adults. And it is sparking debate across the United States.

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In 1982, young Peterman was jailed overnight for failing to pay $73 in overdue traffic fines. Considered a model teen-ager by those who knew him, he was tormented and beaten by fellow prisoners, and died. Later these prisoners said they had just meant to taunt him.

Ironically, Christopher Peterman never should have been sent to jail. If Idaho had adhered to a federal law on the books since 1974, police would have released him to the custody of his parents or sent him to a juvenile shelter. This federal law -- the Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Act -- requires that states provide anyone under 18 with separate confinement from adult prisoners or risk losing federal funds to improve juvenile justice.

The whole issue has been fraught with controversy for years. At the same time , many politicians have been calling for a crackdown on youth crime -- a crackdown that would include trying juvenile in regular courts.

There has been little enforcement of the 1974 federal act and not much money to help states implement it. However, the act was reauthorized in 1980, giving states until the end of 1985 to comply. New attempts to implement this law are now being made.

Studies indicate there is much to be done. The San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, a public interest legal group, each year chronicles cases from Florida to California in which juveniles who have been jailed alongside adults are brutalized, raped, and otherwise abused by prisoners and sometimes by jailers. Several suicides have been the direct result of such incarceration, according to the center.

US Justice Department and independent estimates place the number of juveniles incarcerated with adults at between 300,000 and 500,000. Their average age is 15 ; some are under 9. Many of them have not committed violent crime, but are ''status offenders,'' such as runaways, truants, homeless; some are accused of illegal drug use of petty theft.

Technically, only seven states still allow juveniles convicted of minor crimes to be imprisoned with adults.

Why is there resistance to providing separate facilities for juveniles? One argument is that it is just too expensive to build correctional quarters solely for those under 18. Another is that it is philosophically wrong to make a distinction based on age, especially for perpetrators of violent crime.

However, Paul Demuro, director of youth services for Essex County in New Jersey, says such arguments miss the point. He maintains states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which place juvenile offenders in family-oriented and community rehabilitation programs, have curbed nonviolent juvenile crime.

And Ira Schwartz, a leading researcher in the area of juvenile justice and a fellow at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute, points out that US jails are already overcrowded. He adds that the federal government, with just a fraction of the $900 million spent annually for separate incarceration of youth in training schools and detention centers could aid states in addressing juvenile problems through means other than jails.

These arguments seem convincing. And, even if jail for juveniles were cost effective, a civilized society should find means for reform other than warehousing offenders in jail.

Public pressure is needed to push federal and state lawmakers to mandate no-jail alternatives for those under 18. A good start would be sufficient funding for and enforcement of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. In the meantime, judges sentencing juveniles need to keep in mind the possible consequences of incarcerating them with adults. And communities that haven't done so should monitor standards at facilities where juveniles are imprisoned.

Elizabeth Jameson, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center, stumbled into a nest of abuses in Idaho facilities while investigating the Peterman case. She says re-education of people in the criminal justice system as well as the general public is needed. Emphases on rehabilitation is the key, she says.

The Genovese and Peterman cases involve legal issues and -- perhaps even more important -- moral questions. Both need to be addressed if society is to learn some lessons from these senseless deaths.

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