Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice continues to show that it is serious about criminal justice reform, this time with the announcement that four of New York’s most notorious youth prisons will be placed under federal oversight. The effect of federal oversight will mean strict new limits on the use of physical force by guards, in addition to adding dozens of counselors and investigators to provide critical and much-needed mental health services for the youth.
The change comes as a result of a settlement, finalized last week, between state and federal officials. According to The New York Times, the settlement promises to provide the most significant expansion of mental health services for youth in custody in years. The vast majority of the youth serviced by these changes suffer from drug and/or alcohol problems, developmental disabilities, or other mental health problems. Prior to the settlement New York did not have a single full-time psychiatrist on staff.
Just about a year ago federal investigators found that staff at certain facilities routinely used physical force in disciplining children. The results were devastating and included broken bones, shattered teeth and dozens of other serious injuries that occurred over the course of less than two years. As a result of the settlement guards now will only be allowed to use physical force and restraint in cases where a person is physically threatened by a youth or if that youth is seeking to escape from one of the facilities. Even then, only one method of restraint will be allowed, one in which the youth is forced face-down on the ground for a maximum of three minutes. Each time an instance of forced restraint occurs the settlement mandates that the youth is to be evaluated by a doctor within four hours of the event.
To make sure the changes are being properly implemented, two monitors, jointly chosen by federal and state officials, will oversee efforts to enforce the new rules over a period of two years. The monitors will make a series of progress reports to a federal judge, who must first approve the settlement before it can actually go into effect.
To be fair, New York has been trying to deal with the problems plaguing its juvenile justice system for some time now. Money to pay for the new staff mandated by the settlement was included in portions of the state budget just recently approved, and Governor David Paterson introduced a bill in June that would allow judges to sentence youths to juvenile prisons only if they had been found guilty of a violent crime or a sex act or were deemed to be a serious threat to themselves or others.
While it is unfortunate that it took a death of one youth in 2006 and a host of other serious injuries to bring about these changes, nonetheless it is fantastic to see the Department of Justice actually doing its job here. At the start of his term Attorney General Eric Holder promised that the Department would change substantially under his leadership, and there can be no denying, that on issues of civil rights and criminal justice, that he has been true to his word. Coupled with this term’s decision in Graham v. Florida that life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes is unconstitutional, it would appear that the United States is slowly joining the rest of the civilized world in how it views and treats its youngest criminal offenders. Here’s hoping that Florida, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, and a host of other states that currently have significantly troubled juvenile offender programs and facilities follow New York’s lead.
photo courtesy of kangotraveler via Flickr.