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Juvenile offenders risk sharing jail with adult inmates

Juveniles facing criminal charges may be housed in jail with adults. The "sight and sound" protection from adult inmates that today's juvenile crime suspects have are limited to young people charged with the least serious offenses.

Federal laws attempt to shield most juveniles from adults in jail to prevent situations of abuse. Counties, pressured by budget constrictions, can decide that sending a youth to a detention center is too expensive and lock juvenile crime suspects in adult jails.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said last year that 5,600 juveniles waiting to be tried for adult crimes were housed in jails without adequate protection from adult inmates. An investigative news report found another 1,900 suspects under age 18, charged with less severe drug and property crimes, were also placed in facilities with adults.

Almost double the number of young offenders with cases in the juvenile justice system are in adult jails now than were six years ago. In 2005, just over 1,000 juveniles were in adult jails. Last year the number exceeded 1,900.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported four years ago that juvenile inmates housed with adults are 36 times more prone to suicide than those sent to detention facilities. Youth advocates also say juveniles in adult jails have a high risk of sexual abuse and few opportunities for turning into productive, educated adults.

Virginia became one of a few states in the last few years to make it tougher for youths to be jailed with adults. However, Virginia is not among the short list of three states that forbid mixing the inmate age groups. Hopefully Virginia courts will continue to promote the rehabilitation of young people rather than sending them to prison with adults.

Source: Ventura County Star, "Youths do time in adult facilities," Isaac Wolf, Nov. 19, 2011

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