NDRN calls for reforms of US juvenile justice system

jail cell
Juvenile Justice System Reform

The National Disability Rights Network released an extensive new report June 10, sharply criticizing the nation’s system of juvenile justice, particularly in regard to their impact on youth with disabilities.

An estimated 65 to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have been diagnosed has having a disability, a rate more than triple that of the general population.

As detailed in the 64-page report, the number of minors being forced into the juvenile jail system has decreased in the past decade, after an unprecedented wave of youth incarceration in the 1990s. However, children with disabilities are still routinely physically, emotionally and sexually abused in prisons, further exacerbating the symptoms that placed them in the system in the first place.

As NDRN sees it, federal and state governments have done an inadequate job protecting the rights of incarcerated youth, from their educational rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to their rights under federal anti-discrimination laws, and to their right to be free from torture under the Eighth Amendment, among other laws.

The NDRN, the umbrella system for the nationwide network of federally funded Protection and Advocacy organizations, has increasingly focused on the criminal justice aspects of the disability rights movement in recent years.

The report highlights various efforts by P&A organizations, which exist in every state and territory of the United States, to divert youth with disabilities from the juvenile justice system.

“We know more than ever about the hidden causes that often underlie challenging behaviors,” NDRN Executive Director Curtis Decker wrote in the report’s introduction. “We have a huge body of research at our disposal about best practices and adolescent development. We know what works and what does not.

“Yet, we persist in doing it the wrong way. Solitary confinement and treating children like adult criminals does not make them better people. In fact, more often than not it worsens their behavior and diminishes the United States in the eyes of the international community.”

Among the report’s many recommendations, NDRN calls for Congress to fund a Protection and Advocacy for Juvenile Justice Program, similar to existing programs for traumatic brain injury, voting accessibility and Social Security beneficiaries.

Schools receiving federal funding for School Resource Officers, NDRN argues, should lose funding if they have elevated school-based arrest rates.

It also demands a complete ban on solitary confinement for youth and for increased enforcement of educational and discrimination laws by the US Departments of Education and Justice.

But most of all, NDRN wants to see an acceleration of the trend away from reliance on the juvenile jail system for protecting troubled minors.

“Diversion is the best approach for most youth,” the report states. “It can provide community based services to the vast majority of juvenile offenders who are non-violent, saving secure facilities only for those youth in need of such restrictive placements – and only then for the amount of time necessary to ensure safety in our communities.

“Recidivism can be reduced when we ensure that youth leave the system with marketable skills, some hope, and when placement is unavoidable, a home and community that welcomes their return.”

Disability Rights Washington, publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.