WASHINGTON — For thousands of teens accused of crimes, punishment precedes any conviction in court. While awaiting trial and ostensibly presumed innocent, they can be held for months or even years in county jails — sometimes with adult suspects.
Federal law aims to shield youths from extended detention and from physical or psychological abuse by adult inmates. But the protection doesn't apply to suspects 17 and younger sent to adult court to be tried for serious offenses such as assault, rape or murder. Youth advocates say this exemption amounts to a major loophole.
At any time, 7,500 juveniles sit behind bars in adult jail, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.
In jails intended for adults, young suspects face an elevated risk of physical attacks — including sexual assault — and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than in youth detention centers, according to data included in a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force report. They're also less likely to get the supportive therapy, academics and social experiences that adolescents need to become healthy, educated, productive members of society.
Owen Welty, for instance, was 13 when he was arrested in the shooting death of his neighbor in rural southeastern Missouri. He spent 26 months in several jails, usually housed with adult suspects. He was targeted for physical attacks, including sexual assault, he said, and often went without formal education, psychological counseling and peer interaction.
A St. Louis jury acquitted Owen in February 2009, at age 15. While incarcerated, he fell three grades behind classmates. Now 18 and a high school senior in Clay County, Ark., he has struggled to catch up academically and to overcome flashbacks.
"It's definitely not fair to anyone — educationally, socially, psychologically — to put a 13- or 14-year-old with grown men," said Phyllis Morgan, Owen's high school counselor.
A Scripps Howard News Service investigation reveals widely uneven treatment and oversight of adolescents in adult jails. Among the findings:
This is the last of several national and local stories from Scripps Howard News Service and the Daily News about the housing of juveniles in adult jails.
All but three states — North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming — permit juveniles to be housed in adult jails, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported in September. Twenty-nine of these states exploit the loophole in the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, allowing juveniles to mix with grownup suspects instead of segregating them by "sight and sound." The remaining 18 states' rules for segregating juveniles exceed the federal protections.
Budget pressures are pushing some youths accused of lesser crimes into adult lockups even while their cases remain in the juvenile justice system. Their numbers have doubled in recent years, from 1,009 in 2005 to 1,912 in 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.
Florida passed a law in May enabling counties to send teenagers accused of less-serious crimes in juvenile court to jails instead of youth detention facilities. Costs drove the change, said Steve Casey, the executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, whose members helped draft the legislation.
Detaining an inmate in one of the state's 26 juvenile facilities costs counties roughly $280 a day, Casey said, while a jail costs $80.
Deciding a young suspect's fate takes far longer in the criminal justice system. A case that would take 15 days in juvenile court easily could take over a year in criminal court, said Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a nonprofit in Braintree, Mass.
Arguably, an adult jail can keep a juvenile closer to home, and judges who send youths to jail sometimes reason that they pose a threat to public safety.
Though there is no national data on what percentage of juveniles in adult jails are ultimately found guilty, a May study of the Baltimore city jail found that about two of three juveniles leave without a conviction in adult court.
Jeff Slowikowski, acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said he's concerned about "any amount of time that a juvenile is in an adult facility, not getting the adequate services, away from education, not being able to get back within their own community" — especially if that juvenile is found not guilty.
Ronnie Welty, Owen's dad, agrees. He's still trying to understand how his young son could have spent years locked up — with adults.
"We are supposed to be the greatest country in the world," he said. "How can this happen to me and my family and my boy? It doesn't make any sense."