Commentary

At Last, Justice for Locked-in Juveniles?

Thirty or so years ago, I reported from a New York state prison for juvenile delinquents as part of a national story on how American teenagers were being held behind bars without any consideration for their constitutional rights. To what extent has this changed in many states today?

In a Jan. 1 editorial, The New York Times provided the answer: “The juvenile justice system in the United States is supposed to focus on rehabilitation for young offenders. But for generations, it has largely been a purgatory, failing to protect them or give them the help and counseling they need to become law-abiding adults.

“Children who end up in juvenile courts often do not get due process protections like written complaints presenting the charges against them … or meaningful assistance of counsel” (“Juvenile Court Reform in Tennessee,” The New York Times).

This editorial laggardly followed a vital story about Shelby County, Tenn., and the Department of Justice that was buried inside the Dec. 18, 2012, Times. The story should have been on the front page; it had almost been entirely ignored by the media in all its forms:

“The county and the Justice Department signed an extensive agreement to overhaul the county’s juvenile justice system” (“Deal Signed in Tennessee on Justice for Youths,” Kim Severson, The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2012).

I was glad to discover that the Justice Department does remember the actual meaning of its name, after its torture rationalizations under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and its agreement with Barack Obama’s personally directed “kill lists.”

This Dec. 17, 2012, agreement contained some “first of its kind” policies, as reported by the Times, that were the result of the Justice Department’s 2009 investigation into Shelby County’s juvenile justice system. Among the frightful distortions of the Constitution the department found:

“Black teenagers were twice as likely as white teenagers to be detained and were sent to adult criminal court for minor infractions far more often than whites.

“Black or white, teenagers locked up by the county attempted suicide at record rates and were sometimes strapped to deep, white restraint chairs and left alone up to five times longer than the law allowed.

“They languished over long weekends without proper hearings, were not read their Miranda rights and received crucial court documents just before hearings, if they received them at all …”

Tom Perez, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, told the Times: “What we saw was an assembly line with very little quality assurance.”

What does his boss, Eric Holder, think?

Meanwhile, President Obama, who lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago earlier in his career, has yet to make a comment on the life lessons of these Tennessee teenagers.

So what is changing now in Tennessee because of its agreement with the federal government? Dig this, students and parents around this land of the free:

“Some teenagers whose offenses are not serious are now issued summonses instead of being hauled to detention to await a hearing, and a model in-school program of tutoring, mentoring and counseling has been keeping students who commit minor offenses out of juvenile court altogether.

“Conditions inside the facilities have improved as well, federal investigators said. Three restraint chairs, for example, have been removed, and better suicide prevention protocols are in place.”

Wow! Those kids are beginning to get a small sense of what it is to be an American.

More changes that must still be made in the state of Tennessee include “advising teenagers of their Miranda rights and holding hearings within 48 hours to determine if children should remain in custody.”

I ask readers if your state, like Tennessee, is currently “developing a cadre of public defenders (hardly any of these kids’ families can afford private lawyers) well versed in juvenile court law and providing better medical and mental health treatment for children in detention”?

The Times report briefly cited changes taking place in other states: “Under a new program in New York called the Close To Home initiative … city teenagers who are in large juvenile facilities in other parts of the state will be sent to improved programs in their own neighborhoods.” Then parents won’t have to trek many miles to stay in touch with their kids.

But the Justice Department is still targeting other miscreant states, having sued “Meridian, Miss., and Lauderdale County, saying the school system was running a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ in which students were jailed for infractions as minor as talking back to teachers or wearing socks that violated school dress codes.

“Some students had been shipped 80 miles to a juvenile detention center without probable cause or legal representation.”

The 2014 elections are getting nearer — not just for Congress, but at the state and local level as well. How many candidates of either party will be roused, or say a word, about why so many American teenagers are second-class citizens? Or, more accurately, why they aren’t citizens of this nation at all while imprisoned?

And, as always, I ask the media, including so-called social media, why they aren’t more involved in reporting on these youthful offenders who have been sentenced to be exiled from their Constitution.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.