Kids in jail

Our view: Youngsters need to be protected

July 17, 2008

Lewin Carlton Powell III and Nicholas W. Browning share a chilling profile - they are 16-year-olds charged with killing a parent. Mr. Browning has the horrible distinction of being accused of murdering two younger brothers as well as his parents. These teens are among 50 or so juveniles jailed at the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting trial on adult charges. You may say this is where they belong, but federal law recognized years ago the potential dangers of jailing youths and adults together and required that juveniles be segregated. At the new jail in Baltimore County, teenagers are kept in a separate cellblock and have little if any contact with adults.

But that's not the case everywhere. A 2007 report by the Campaign for Youth Justice counts only 20 states, including Maryland, that require juveniles to be segregated from adults in jail. Every day, about 7,500 youths are confined in adult jails, federal statistics indicate. The consequences can be serious: harassment, abuse and suicide. Legislation now in Congress would close a decades-old loophole in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that allows juveniles charged as adults to be held in adult facilities. It would phase in a segregation requirement over four years to help states comply.

States should be required to keep juveniles separate by "sight and sound" from adult inmates, while providing them ample recreation and educational services. A secure juvenile facility would be a better option for some. And no state should be allowed to jail a teen runaway, truant or curfew violator, as Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin proposes in an amendment. That's not a problem in Maryland because the state prohibits it, but since 1997, the national count of kids detained in locked facilities for these issues has doubled. That's inexcusable.

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