ACA Debates Youth In Prison

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The American Correctional Association's policies say that youths should not be confined in adult facilities, but the ACA has just put out guidelines for states that do it anyway.

That's the result of a debate within the ACA over new accreditation standards that it is publishing. Some members of the ACA's standards committee thought they were proposing a "pro forma" standard requiring facilities to meet that long-standing ACA policy in order to be accredited. But others said that while the concept was sound, they had to face the reality that some state laws do allow (even mandate) the practice, and that the ACA should provide guidelines for those that do.

The battle started more than a year ago, when standards submitted to the committee in January 2000 included the prohibition. "Quite frankly, I thought this endeavor would be rather pro forma," Lynn Branham, a member of the ACA's commission on accreditation for corrections, said in a speech when the standards committee met the following August. Opponents argued that adopting the standards would usurp some state laws, would be difficult for administrators to meet because they do not decide who comes to their facilities, and would have no effect because the states would continue to house youths in adult facilities.

Branham, a visiting professor of law at the University of Illinois, blasted the last argument as a cop-out. She noted that in the 1970s the ACA led a coalition of 40 organizations, including the American Bar Association and the National Association of Counties, to remove children from adult jails - even though state laws allowed the practice. She said that movement helped reduce the number of children in adult jails from about 1 million then to several thousand today.

The committee defeated a proposal to prohibit the confinement of youths in adult facilities (except under some narrow circumstances involving youthful offenders who would pose a risk to other youths, or would medically or mentally benefit from such placement). Instead, the committee adopted a proposal which establishes conditions for when youthful offenders are housed in adult facilities. Those standards say the youths should be housed in a special youth unit except for the same narrow circumstances defined above, in which case there must be written policies and procedures to justify such a move and a plan of action for the youth to return to the youth unit. The policies also call for youths to have no more than "incidental" sight or sound contact with the adult offenders, and for program staff working with youthful offenders to undergo special training on issues such as adolescent development, suicide prevention and nutrition.

Critics of the ACA's standards say they have little impact on quality of care anyway, citing lawsuits against ACA-accredited facilities for confining youths under inadequate conditions.

Contact: American Correctional Association (301) 918-1800, or