New York and DOJ Usher in New Era of Juvenile Justice

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.


Walter G.
Walter G7 years ago

Why so late?

Petra Luna
Petra Luna7 years ago

So our youth who are already struggling to be set right get abused in these youth prisons? Unacceptable! What are we doing to help prevent these youth from being arrested? Doesn't sound like much.

Alexandra B.
Alexandra B7 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Teresa E.
Teresa E7 years ago

The private for profit (prison Jail system) is more a part of the problem than most would believe. Its easy to blame the parents but how about laws which are becoming more and more ambiguous? and are multiplying in number daily. Do we throw a first time offender in such a horrenous place for say copywrite infrigement? How about sending an inapropriate text message? How about if they get into a fight at school? Some things that used to be handled as normal teen or adolecent behavior is being handled as crimes. Now with zero tolerance policies and huge prison complexes which must be filled to make a profit things are getting worse. In our town they charged a young man with theft and disorderly conduct for taking an extra cheese stick in the schools cafeteria line.
ridiculous, but happening more and more, and with more people engaging in simplistic black and white thinking (like saying he did steal there fore he is guilty) more of these cases are coming to light. I am all for handling dangerous criminals but don't want to see children criminalised over petty wrong doing. Plus don't our law enforcement people have better things to do with there time?

carole a.
.7 years ago

I agree with Lionel. He's right, you know.

Lionel Mann
Lionel Mann7 years ago

Until your very primitive education system is drastically reformed to offer hope to the disadvantaged amongst your youngsters you will continue to need these barbaric institutions. You are continually criticising other nations for "faulty" or "wicked" practices, yet you have even more deleterious conditions at home. For one thing you could desist from spending billions on sending your moronic murderous military to create mayhem around the world and devote at least some the funds saved to bring your education system into the twenty-first century. First, however, remove it from political control; it is no politician's interest to have an intelligent populace.

Diane A.
Diane A7 years ago

It is sad that it took such a tragedy for such much-needed changes to be made. While I may not in principle agree with jail as a solution for youth crime it is good to see improvements being made. While one person can not change the society which produces violent young people overnight; Attorney General Eric Holder does seem to be making some positive progress in evolving the justice system of NY to be at least a little more humane.

stefan d.
Stefan Dwornik7 years ago

Like you Mr. Holder, you can in and promised to make change,and shake the Department back up to the level it should be. These are the kind of changes we need to see from our Justice system; real justice for those who should be protected, and ideas and projects to open the world up to these young people, and give them direction and hope. A lot of the problems we face in our society, we must come together and really volunteer our time; it will change the world around us, and the way we interact, and view others.

Ellinor S.
Ellinor S7 years ago

If the parents had been better parents they wouldnt be in juvenile detention.

Virginia C.
Virginia Cameron7 years ago

It is easy to create a child but difficult to raise one. Too many children are being born into dysfunctional families,therefore,the state mustprotect the vulnerable by provide daycare for these little people. All men are not created equal,what family you are born in decides your fate. The USA has the highest rate of incarceration in the world,daycare might prevent the road to criminality.