Little Trouble, Big Punishment: Detention for RunawaysPosted by Lauren Jones on March 19th, 2010
Two runaway teens from Rockville, Indiana were found safe on Tuesday, March 17 in Vigo County. The 15 and 16-year-old, who the reporter named but we will not here because of their ages, were last seen March 8. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to find the girls, police finally found them at a traffic stop on Highway 40, in a semi-trailer truck en route to Terre Haute.
After briefly visiting family in Parke County, where they are from, the girls are now in a juvenile detention facility “pending an investigation.”
“Kids this age don’t realize the dangers of being out on the street…they were really in danger,” said Officer John Van Hook, who is apparently working the case because of his rapport with teens in the area.
Were in "danger"? The danger of locking up non-violent children in jail must have slipped Hook’s mind when he made that statement. At press time there are no reports of vandalism, theft or assault by the girls. There are no reports of any charges. Why then are they being held in detention?
Studies show that even one day spent in juvenile jail creates a negative impact on a youth’s life outcomes, the local economy, and the community’s public safety. Youth with a history of detention are less likely to graduate from high school; are more likely to be unemployed as an adult; and are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as an adult.
A majority of the youth held in detention do not pose threats to public safety – rather they are awaiting trial for non-violent offenses or minor violations resulting from contact with police for reasons including running away, graffiti or shoplifting. Youth can even be jailed for missing a court date months after their initial contact with the system.
Detention for a non-violent and/or low-risk offending youth negatively impacts his or her future life opportunities. Studies show that youth who are jailed – no matter the reason or the length of time behind bars – are more likely to reoffend. And let us not forget the other forms of abuse that youth experience in detention centers, and the costs associated with a system that actually does more damage than rehabilitation.
“I saw that the skills the inmates learned to survive inside prison made them more dangerous when they were released,” says Pat Nolan, a former inmate in Los Angeles County at a panel held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs last year.
Nolan’s experience comes from adult prison but his testimony could apply to offenders of all ages. The adult and juvenile systems both lack a rehabilitative focus. Placing a low-level offending youth behind bars with youth who may pose a public safety risk will only expose him or her to negative behavior.
In this recent case, Officer Hook may know something we do not. Perhaps these girls are running from abusive homes. Perhaps their parents wanted to teach them a lesson by keeping them in detention. We do not know. But not matter the reason, a juvenile detention center is no place for young runaways. Jail should be a last resort saved only for those who pose serious public safety risks. It should not be a dumping ground for status offender and youth who need services and/or counseling.
These girls need to be with relatives or in a community center where they can receive shelter, supervision and any other services they might need. Alternatives to detention, like a crisis center, could be that place.
Our society has become too complacent about the use of detention. Jail should not be a place to send our children in trouble and need. Placing young runaways in jail is a formula for disaster.
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