An ugly underside of America's growing problem of prison overcrowding is the plight of arrested youths who end up as cellmates to hardened adult criminals. Beatings, rapes, and suicides, as well as verbal and emotional abuse, often attend such incarceration.
Recent cases in Idaho, Kentucky, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., have involved assaults on youngsters and, in many cases, deaths resulting from adult brutality behind bars. Other lawsuits are pending.
The jailing of youngsters under 18 is technically outlawed in most states and counties, and it is strongly discouraged by federal law. But, according to the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center (YLC), it is still done to some degree in 30 states.
Juvenile studies by the YLC and other agencies estimate that as many as 500,000 children - some as young as nine years of age - are put behind bars in adult jails and police lockups in the United States every year. In the large majority of these cases, youngsters are incarcerated for ``status'' offenses such as resisting discipline and running away, according to YLC director Mark Soler. ``Most of these kids should not be jailed, he says.''
Mr. Soler adds that jailing youngsters for offenses like petty theft or traffic violations ``is ridiculous.''
A United States Department of Justice study indicates that only 10 percent of jailed juveniles are charged with serious crimes. And only 1 in 4 has committed any crime at all. The rest are placed in custody as victims of abuse and neglect, the report says.
A University of Michigan youth policy specialist, Ira Schwartz, points out that, contrary to popular belief, violent youth ``tend to commit crimes of violence against other juveniles ... and not against the elderly and the public at large.''
Professor Schwartz, a former administrator with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, adds: ``You are more likely to be hurt in your own home by someone you know than [by] a juvenile in the street.''
Public officials and juvenile authorities from 42 states recently met in Boston to assess the problems of jailing children and to urge public authorities to pass - and enforce - laws that would provide alternatives to prison for juvenile offenders.
Jay Lindgren, executive officer of juvenile release in the Minnesota Department of Correction, says that few youngsters who commit violent crimes are repeat offenders. Studies in his state show the typical young criminal is black and male - and a victim of violence himself.
``Every kid that is abused doesn't end up a murderer,'' Mr. Lindgren points out. ``But almost all kid murderers have been abused.''
Youth delinquency experts are urging renewed funding of a provision of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which mandates that states that receive federal funds for youth programs remove minors from adult jails and lockups by the end of 1988. Several states are now seeking an extension of this deadline. Others, according to Soler, are willing to forgo public funds to keep juveniles incarcerated in the same facilities with adults.
The US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last week that the population of the nation's local jails jumped 23 percent - to 274,400 - in a three-year period ending June 30, 1986, causing serious overcrowding. The report said the occupancy rate in large local jails across the nation was running 8 percent above rated capacity.
Some states argue that the costs of separate facilities for youthful offenders are prohibitive. And some also hold that youngsters - particularly older teen-agers - who commit violent crimes and are tried as adults should be imprisoned with adults.
As to costs, several studies show that it is far more expensive to incarcerate children in jails than to place them in supervised programs in the community. A 1983 Justice Department survey, for example, found that jailing a juvenile cost $24 a day while placement in a small group home averaged $17 a day, and home detention, $14.
A Maryland assessment (reported by YLC) found that ``the cost of placing a youngster in a state correctional institution is between a reported $12,000 and $14,000 [per year], but the greater number of juveniles are being sent to group homes, which cost $8,200, or placed in foster care at a cost of $2,400.''
Several states - among them California, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia - have passed laws recently banning the incarceration of children in adult jails.
In California, a new statute prohibits the holding of children in county jails - and it even limits the time that a youngster may spend in custody in a police station.
In Oregon, a federal court has ruled that any detention of children in adult jails constitutes a violation of their constitutional rights.
A variety of alternatives to incarceration of children are starting to ``catch on,'' juvenile authorities report. Among them:
Group home residential programs that include round-the-clock adult supervision, counseling, and educational and recreational opportunities.
Foster care for youngsters who authorities believe will benefit from a stable, homelike environment.
Wilderness programs that help young people develop self-confidence and the ability to work constructively with others in a group outdoor survival atmosphere.
Community supervision where a probation officer or a trained paraprofessional oversees a youngster's progress in the child's own home.
Family court community aide programs that provide counseling and link a youth in trouble with neighborhood resources.
Family crisis counseling that affords ``emergency'' professional help to a youngster and his or her family for a temporary period.
Proctor programs where youths live with a proctor in the proctor's home until it can be demonstrated to authorities that the young person is making constructive use of his time and learning to cope with those problems that led to involvement with the juvenile-justice system.
Service-oriented programs for youngsters who don't require constant supervision and could benefit from counseling, employment training, and other programs.