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Life in Juvenile Jails: Still Nasty, Brutish, and Dangerous

NEARLY 75 percent of juvenile-justice facilities in the United States are over capacity and lack adequate health care, security, and anti-suicide efforts, according to a new Department of Justice report.

The findings mark the slow decline of a promising period in juvenile-justice reform, experts say, and show that a chance to reform a generation of young offenders is being missed.

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Get-tough policies have resulted in a record 500,000 youths being handled by the US juvenile justice system each year. But although smaller, better-staffed, experimental programs are finding ways to push youth recidivism rates lower, reform efforts are hampered by poor management, and a lack of funding.

``There's been a kind of stagnation in that movement'' toward smaller, innovative programs, says Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh and an adviser on the study. Poor management and ``the resource issue has plagued everyone.''

A tour of a model facility in Brockton, Mass., designed to temporarily hold youths - reflects the national problems. One 15-year-old who was convicted of raping an elementary schoolgirl has stayed in the facility for a year because of the state's inability to find space for him in one of its long-term facilities.

``One of the things that ... we're trying to address is getting them into the appropriate program more quickly,'' says Gene Caputo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS). ``We are just seeing more kids from the courts. [But] we are keeping up with the demand.''

The number of youths under state supervision in Massachusetts has grown by 27 percent since 1991, and facilities have at times been over capacity. After a series of budget cuts, a special gubernatorial panel recently found numerous deficiencies in the system.

Six escapes from DYS facilities have occurred this year, culminating in an eight-youth July breakout from the state's most secure facility in which one guard was pistol whipped and another guard was shot at.

The state is responding. A $14 million increase in funding from the legislature has resulted in the addition of 200 new beds to the system, and 100 more will be added this winter.

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The two showcase Brockton facilities, one for 29 boys and one for 14 girls, were also impressive. Youths live two to a room, receive GED and computer classes, health care from visiting nurse, and substance-abuse and psychiatric counseling. Both facilities are well-staffed, with a counselor for every five-to-seven youths.

Studies have found that the roughly 70 to 75 percent recidivism rate for juveniles in large facilities can be lowered to 50 percent in small, intensive programs.

Experts say that Massachusetts, Utah, and Pennsylvania have the best juvenile justice systems in the country. Florida, Maryland, and Texas have all launched innovative programs that are far more comprehensive and successful than the boot-camp efforts that emerged in the late 1980s. But other states, they warn, still lag far behind.

The Department of Justice study found that larger facilities, often called ``training schools,'' remain open in several states. They sometimes house hundreds of youths and tend to be more overcrowded.

Over 17,000 acts of attempted suicide, self-mutilation, or suicidal gestures occur in juvenile-detention facilities annually, the study says. There are an estimated 24,000 juvenile-on-juvenile attacks and 8,000 juvenile-on-staff attacks each year. Juvenile and staff injury rates, and juvenile suicide-attempt rates are higher in overcrowded facilities.

Experts say the overcrowding reflects a sharp increase in juvenile crime nationwide. The largest increase has been in violent, gun-related crimes. The number of murders committed by teenagers has more than doubled since 1985, while murder rates for adults have dropped.

Experts say adequate facilities are needed to deal with youth before they become hardened, repeat offenders, but many states and counties - which are responsible for running juvenile justice systems - lack the resources.

Demographers warn that the number of teenagers will soon increase sharply - meaning an increase in the number of youth criminals even if crime rates do not rise.

Clinton administration officials say that the crime bill enacted by Congress this year has $6.5 billion in funds, which Republican opponents decried as ``pork,'' for crime-prevention efforts. Some of the funds will go to new programs to keep at-risk youth from turning to crime, reducing future juvenile prison overcrowding problems, they say.

James ``Buddy'' Howell, director of Research at Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, says more comprehensive programs like the ones in Massachusetts and other states are needed across the country.

``What we've learned is that these kids have several problems that occur at the same time and must be addressed at the same time.... They can be helped,'' says Dr. Howell. ``Early intervention is the key to long-term reductions in the crime rate.''

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