For thousands of teens accused of crimes, punishment precedes any conviction in court. While awaiting trial and ostensibly presumed innocent, they can be held for months or even years in county jails for -- and sometimes with -- adult suspects.
Federal law aims to shield youths from extended detention and from physical or psychological abuse by adult inmates. But the protection does not apply to suspects 17 and younger sent to adult court to be tried for serious offenses such as assault, rape or murder. Youth advocates say this exemption amounts to a major loophole.
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Such suspects -- roughly 5,600 at any given time in 2010, federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data show -- lack that "sight and sound" protection. More than 1,900 other youths -- charged with less-serious property or drug crimes -- technically are covered because their cases remain in the juvenile justice system. But they, too, sit in jail, sometimes because it's cheaper for cash-strapped counties to keep them there than in juvenile facilities geared toward development and rehabilitation, a Scripps Howard News Service investigation finds
In jails intended for adults, young suspects face an elevated risk of physical attacks, including sexual assault, research shows. Juvenile inmates are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult jails than in youth detention centers, according to data included in a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force report. They're also less likely to get the supportive therapy, academics and social experiences that adolescents need to become healthy, educated, productive members of society.
Owen Welty, for instance, was 13 when he was arrested in the shooting death of his neighbor in rural southeastern Missouri. He spent 26 months in several jails, usually housed with adult suspects. He was targeted for physical attacks, including sexual assault, he said, and often went without formal education, psychological counseling and peer interactions.
A St. Louis jury acquitted Owen in February 2009, at age 15. While incarcerated, he fell three grades behind classmates. Now 18 and a high school senior in Clay County, Ark., he has struggled to catch up academically and to overcome flashbacks.
"It's definitely not fair to anyone -- educationally, socially, psychologically -- to put a 13- or 14-year-old with grown men," said Phyllis Morgan, Owen's high school counselor.
The SHNS investigation reveals widely uneven treatment and oversight of adolescents in adult jails. Among the findings:
• All but three states -- North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming -- permit juveniles to be housed in adult jails, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported in September. Twenty-nine of these states exploit the loophole in the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, allowing juveniles to mix with grownup suspects instead of segregating them by "sight and sound." The remaining 18 states' rules for segregating juveniles exceed the federal protections.
• Budget pressures are pushing some youths accused of lesser crimes into adult lockups even while their cases remain in the juvenile justice system. Their numbers have doubled in recent years, from 1,009 in 2005 to 1,912 in 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.
Florida passed a law in May enabling counties to send teenagers accused of less-serious crimes in juvenile court to jails instead of youth detention facilities. Costs drove the change, said Steve Casey, the executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, whose members helped draft the legislation.
Detaining an inmate in one of the state's 26 juvenile facilities costs counties roughly $280 a day, Casey said, while a jail costs $80. Expenses vary by state. In Pierce County, Wash., juvenile detention costs have risen more than five-fold since 2000, from $85 a day per resident to $455, a September audit found.
Although federal rules permit only brief jail stays for youth offenders in the juvenile justice system, regulations allow them to be held longer in youth-only facilities located at adult jails, said John Wilson. He wrote the U.S. Justice Department regulations on locked up juveniles, and has since left for a position at the nonpartisan Tallahassee, Fla.-based Institute for Intergovernmental Research.
• Deciding a young suspect's fate takes far longer in the criminal justice system. A case that would take 15 days in juvenile court easily could take over a year in criminal court, said Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a nonprofit in Braintree, Mass.
• Insufficient data make it unclear how many jailed juveniles get convicted or get released. The Justice Department reported in a September bulletin how little is known about these youths: "To date, only 13 states publicly report the total
number of their transfers, and even fewer report offense profiles, demographic characteristics or details regarding processing and sentencing."
The Justice Department's report noted that one in four youngsters in California's adult courts are acquitted or the charges against them are dropped. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit research group in Oakland, Calif., reported in May that about two of three juveniles leave the Baltimore City Detention Center without a conviction in adult court.
Jeff Slowikowski, acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said he's concerned about "any amount of time that a juvenile is in an adult facility, not getting the adequate services, away from education, not being able to get back within their own community" -- especially if that juvenile is found not guilty.
Arguably, an adult jail can keep a juvenile closer to home, because there are fewer youth detention centers than county lockups. Judges who send youths to jail sometimes reason that young defendants pose a threat to public safety and cannot be rehabilitated.
In his decision to move Owen Welty's murder case to adult court, Judge Joe Satterfield wrote that "protection of the community requires" the 13-year-old to be "prosecuted under general law."
But one of Slowikowski's predecessors, Shay Bilchik, contends that jailing a juvenile before trial contradicts a principle of American jurisprudence by presuming guilt, not innocence.
"This is a basic philosophical question: When we have juvenile courts, why would we hold juveniles pending determination of guilt in an adult facility?" asked Bilchik, who headed OJJDP in the Clinton administration and now runs Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
Tough-on-crime measures arose after teen crime surged in the early 1990s. It peaked at over 500 violent-crime arrests per 100,000 juveniles in 1994 and plunged to under 300 in 2008, OJJDP reports. But while the incidence of crime has fallen, the number of juveniles in adult jails has held steady.
Since 2005, Colorado, Maine, Virginia and Pennsylvania have made it more difficult to place youths in adult jails, said the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based group that advocates keeping juveniles out of adult facilities.
Before Colorado passed such a law in 2009, the state's system was "pretty barbaric" in allowing excessive transfers, said Rep. Claire Levy, a Democrat and the legislation's sponsor.
Florida has gone the other way. It now allows counties to house juveniles charged with relatively minor offenses in adult jails whose staff are equipped with Tasers and pepper spray, items forbidden in juvenile facilities.
Opponents of Florida's new law say adult jails are inherently more dangerous, even if juvenile inmates are physically segregated from adults.
Youths in adult jails and prisons are "probably at the highest risk of all" for sexual abuse, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported in 2009.
Without adequate schooling and therapy, arrested teens are far less likely to grow into productive adults, said Marty Beyer, a clinical psychologist in Eugene, Ore., who has assessed hundreds of young suspects. Beyer said those resources, cornerstones of juvenile detention programs, typically aren't available in adult jails.
Moving a juvenile into the adult criminal justice system -- the precursor to a jail stay -- also makes the youngster more likely to reoffend, contends Donna Bishop, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
"Transfer is more likely to aggravate recidivism than to stem it," according to a 2002 report Bishop co-authored, "Juvenile Transfers to Criminal Court Study."
Youngsters traditionally reach adult jail after a judge or district attorney decides to prosecute in adult court. But that's changing. In 2010, a fourth of all youths in adult jails at a given time were held on juvenile jurisdiction offenses, which tend to involve stolen property or illegal drugs.
Far too many juveniles are in the adult system, federal official Slowikowski said in an interview. States "need to address protecting the kids that are within their care," he said.
Ronnie Welty, Owen's dad, agrees. He's still trying to understand how his young son could have spent years locked up -- with adults.
"We are supposed to be the greatest country in the world," he said. "How can this happen to me and my family and my boy? It doesn't make any sense."
Email reporter Isaac Wolf at email@example.com.