Locking up youths for up to three days in the new Elmore County jail in rural Alabama will curb juvenile crime and help the county’s bottom line, insists Sheriff Bill Franklin.
“We are under a financial crunch, just like counties all across America,’ he said. Franklin runs the $5 million 242-bed jail, nine miles north of Montgomery. It was built in 1995 after a federal consent decree cited horrific conditions at the old jail.
Now, Franklin wants to charge neighboring counties $55 a day per juvenile to teach the kids who get in trouble a hard lesson by locking them up for a weekend in the adult jail.
He and other officials from rural areas urged Congress to relax restrictions on jailing kids with adults in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Youth Violence last year.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the number of youths under 18 in jails rose 20 percent from 1994 to 1996. There were 8,100 youths under 18 in adult jails. Most were convicted as adult offenders or were awaiting trial on adult crimes.
Child advocates fear that the real motives for mixing juvenile delinquents with adult inmates are political and monetary. They are preparing for a fight.
David Roush, director of the National Juvenile Detention Association’s Center for Research and Professional Development at Michigan State University, says jailing young offenders with adults is the wrong approach.
“It is a bad idea,’ he says. “It was a bad idea in the 1800s and it was so bad an idea then that we decided we would do away with it, that we would house juveniles separately and have a completely separate juvenile justice system.’
And a new study by the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute found that “sweeping changes to America’s juvenile justice system are being driven by exaggerated claims about violent juvenile offenders in counties that actually experience very little violent juvenile crime.” Researchers Vincent Schiraldi and Jason Ziedenberg took a closer look at the Congressional testimony of Franklin; another Alabama county sheriff, Edmund Sexton of Tuscaloosa, and City Councilwoman Carol Crump of Casper, Wyo.
“We were trying to demonstrate the disconnect between rhetoric and reality,’ said Ziedenberg.
Legislation proposed by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), however, would give flexibility to states in general and rural counties in particular to design policies curbing violent youth crime. Focusing less on rehabilitation and more on punishment, the legislation would create new mandates to expand juvenile detention beds and change the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, making it easier to jail youths with adults.
Franklin, in an interview with YOUTH TODAY, discussed his problems dealing with the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) after the jail construction was finished.
“Once all the dust settled, we started pushing for all those things that we would have to do to house juveniles when the state’s Department of Youth Services came in,’ said Franklin.
“The Youth Department said, ‘Sheriff, you’ve got a nice facility but you’ve got to be able to take those juveniles and put them in an area where they can neither hear nor see an adult,’ Franklin reported.
“And not only that, and this is the ludicrous restriction they placed on us, they said, ‘you’ve also got to separate the staff,'” Franklin added.
“In other words, at lunchtime, if I have a corrections officer who serves the adults cornbread, that same corrections officer cannot walk across the hall and serve the juveniles cornbread. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’
Franklin’s temporary solution was to get a $25,000 state grant to hire five more staff to cover the jail’s “pods’ for juveniles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The money lasted three months.
So far, Franklin said, the board of county commissioners in his rural, but fast-growing county, has come up with the money to keep the new staff on, even though most of the time the 16 juvenile beds are empty. He has been trying to convince juvenile judges in the area to send kids to his jail’s pods for a few weekends to punish them for doing bad things like burglary, malicious destruction of property and simple assault. Franklin admits that bringing in more juvenile inmates would also help pay to operate the new facility.
Schiraldi and Ziedenberg, authors of the Justice Policy Institute study called, “The Pods of Elmore County,’ said the proposed changes appear to be driven by the belief that “current rules are preventing police from locking up juvenile murderers, rapists and predators.’
Hatch, for example, told CBS,”We think that we have to have some flexibility so that these smaller towns can handle these problems and not let the violent criminal go.’
Yet, the FBI reports that the majority of violent young offenders live in a handful of major urban centers, not rural counties. One in three juvenile homicides is committed in just four cities – Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
No Need for Change
The sheriff in Detroit (Wayne County), Robert Ficano, disagrees with Franklin. Ficano sees no need to change the federal regulations, contending jailing juveniles creates its own set of problems better dealt with in separate juvenile detention facilities.
Even juveniles who are being tried in adult courts are kept in Wayne County’s juvenile detention center to avoid problems, Ficano said. From his perspective, with an already over-crowded adult jail, Ficano views herding juveniles into the jail as a recipe for disaster.
“We have a number of adults who are under court orders and we have certain minimum standards that they are supposed to meet,’ said Ficano. “And the standards generally differ, adults versus juveniles.’
Roush, of the Juvenile Detention Association, contends adult jailers he’s spoken with say they would face many problems if they locked up juveniles with adults.
“You have classification problems, segregation problems, problems with programs, problems with proper mental health services,’ Roush said. “These problems are all a function of those characteristics associated with juveniles, like age and maturity. There’s a whole different set of expectations.’
Putting aside whether keeping violent juveniles in adult jails is a good idea, Roush said he is troubled by the rhetoric coming out of Washington from politicians trying to look “tough on crime.
“I really think the big issue is the whole notion of how it deteriorates the quality of care, how we continue to lower the bar, how we continue to devalue and dehumanize kids,’ Roush said.
The effort may not even be cost-effective. A recent OJJDP study of the legislation’s hidden expenses concluded that it may cost counties $16 for every $1 of federal money received to transfer more juveniles to adult facilities. Justice Department sources contend that the study has not been released because it undercuts White House support for an array of preventive juvenile crime measures.
And in rural areas, serious crime may be minimal. The Justice Policy Institute study notes that 82 percent of the nation’s counties experienced no juvenile arrests at all for homicide in 1994.
In Casper, Wyo., for example, there were no juvenile arrests for murder, rape or robbery in 1994, according to the study. And in Tuscaloosa County, the overwhelming number of youth offenses were nonviolent.
In Elmore County, only 2 percent of all juvenile arrests were for violent crime, the study showed. The national average is 7 percent.
“The truth about Elmore County is that the jail will likely house non-violent youths from other counties. Sheriff Franklin can charge more than double the incounty rate,’ said Schiraldi. “In other words, Sheriff Franklin’s pods are a revenue source for Elmore County. Like other counties profiled in the study, Elmore County should not drive federal policy to allow kids to be jailed with adults.’
Mark Soler, director of the Youth Law Center, which has offices in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, adds that youths who are jailed with adults have a higher rate of suicide and are more likely to become victims of physical and sexual assault.
“One of the incredible ironies is that these sheriffs who can’t comply with OJJDP regulations never come face to face with all the states that are in compliance,’ Soler said. “You can’t tell me Alabama is any more rural than Montana, or North Dakota or New Mexico. Those three states are in compliance with federal law.’
Law enforcement officials like Franklin, Soler said, are “insulting the public officials in the great majority of states who are in compliance.’
Soler said he listened to Sheriff Franklin’s Senate testimony and found that the sheriff was not knowledgeable about many of the issues and regulations.
Franklin’s concern about corrections officers not being able to serve cornbread to both adults and juveniles is way off base, according to Soler. “In fact, regulations were modified to make them more flexible to deal exactly with the kinds of concerns that this sheriff had,’ Soler said. “It’s unfortunate he would come into Congress without knowing what the regulations were.’
Soler said he is suspicious of the rhetoric.
“This is politics. This is not about good public policy,’ Soler said. “Sessions is trying to show what a tough guy he is.’
Franklin said that the study’s authors have missed the point. Although only 2 percent of Elmore County’s violent crime is committed by juveniles, about one-third of all reported crimes there involve juveniles.
‘They Mean Well’
“These people, they mean well but they should have come down here and checked our records,’ Franklin said.
Franklin said that many parents are frustrated with the behavior of their kids who often are hostile to authority figures.
“Mr. and Mrs. John Doe were coming to us and saying, ‘Sheriff, put him in jail,’ Franklin contends. “And we were saying we can’t. We didn’t have a facility that allowed us to house juveniles.’
The Institute’s study noted, though, that there is a juvenile detention center in Montgomery and another one 30 miles away in Opelika.
Franklin said his county is allotted just one bed in the Montgomery detention center, although he admitted that arrangements could be made if a second seriously violent offender needed to be held in long-term juvenile detention.
The issue for him, though, is the need for a short-term detention program for kids who are getting out of control as a way to “get their attention.’
“Here’s what’s happening: Instead of us having to send all these juveniles back home, we’re able to keep them three days in our county jail,’ Franklin said. “We’re providing them drug counseling, education and we’re requiring them to exercise. We’re also providing them ministry services on a voluntary basis.
“There’s been a profound effect. Our juvenile judge may sentence them to five weekends. They check in Friday after school and are allowed to leave Monday morning to go to school. What we’re doing is taking weekends away from these children and making them study, making them exercise and making them go to drug counseling.’
Elmore County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Elizabeth Culberson agreed with Franklin that the weekends in jail are helping many kids who need an attitude adjustment.
“It’s the best option I have,’ Culberson said. “Our facility opened in August 1997 and before that we had no place to send them that would get their attention in any way at all. This is getting their attention.’
Culberson said she’s impressed with Tim Wheeler, the sheriff’s administrator of the juvenile pods, who is “absolutely first class.
“He relates to them,’ Culberson said. “He sits down and spends time with each one of them. There’s not a moment where they are just sitting there twiddling their thumbs. They have to do calisthenics, clean up their rooms. They have a reading skills program for four hours a day and a juvenile counselor from Montgomery who instructs them on drug and alcohol problems.’
“I would say that 95 percent of the juveniles we have put in there for 72 hours have not come back and I don’t expect to see them back. It’s a terrific tool,’ Culberson said.
Culberson said she’s also impressed with the county jail’s juvenile pods, which are kept strictly segregated from adult units, even the recreation facilities.
Although most of the juvenile crime in Elmore County’s county seat, Wetumpka (pop. 60,000), is not as serious as crimes in New York or Los Angeles, there is still a problem and the jail is a good solution, Culberson said.
“I had a 13-year-old here this morning who has an attitude,’ Culberson said. “He’s definitely a candidate for the jail.’
But David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program, who crafted a 1986 California law spelling out the limited cases when juveniles might be held in adult jails, contended Elmore County’s jail will endanger juveniles placed there.
“If getting a kid’s attention means that he or she is poorly supervised and ends up being beaten up by a bunch of 30-year-old thugs in a jail, does that meet the goals of the juvenile justice system?” Steinhart asked.
“Kids present special problems in detention and they need specially trained staff. When the local communities attempt to save money by using untrained staff, it’s a bad deal for the kids.”
Now, the issue goes back to the Senate where Sessions will reintroduce his Violent and Repeat Offender Act in an effort to override the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which mandated that juveniles not be jailed with adults.