Stopping sexual abuse of youths in detention

Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post:

Some 700 youths held in juvenile correctional facilities in 2008 and 2009 say that they were sexually victimized by other youths while in custody. About 2,700 minors report sexual contact - ranging from inappropriate touching to rape - by the adult employees charged with keeping order in the facilities. Yet, as The Post's Carrie Johnson reported, the Justice Department is delaying reforms that would help protect such children while it awaits a cost-benefit analysis.

This lack of urgency is disgraceful. It is a grave mistake and a bigger injustice to tolerate sexual violence as an inevitable byproduct of incarceration. Such abuse often leaves lifelong psychological scars that compound the difficulty of reintegration into society. And the abuse meted out by staff and inmate perpetrators alike undermines the order necessary in a correctional facility.

It has long been suspected that juveniles behind bars - especially those housed with adult inmates - were particularly susceptible to physical and sexual abuse. Now, thanks to a study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, we know that the system miserably fails even those kept in juvenile facilities.

In a study released on Thursday, the BJS reported that 12 percent - or 3,220 - of the 26,550 juveniles held in youth correctional facilities across the country experienced some form of sexual abuse. Two of the facilities with the worst track records are in Virginia: the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center in Fauquier County and the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, just outside Richmond. Also listed among the 10 worst institutions in the country was the Backbone Mountain Youth Center, which is in Swanton in Western Maryland.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has had on his desk for months a voluminous report by a congressionally created commission chaired by Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which spent four years studying the issue, chronicled the sexual savagery of adults and juveniles that was taking place in America's prisons. In September, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General revealed that sexual abuse was also much too common in federal facilities, with allegations of sexual abuse by prison staff doubling from 2001 through 2008.

Now yet another report, this one produced by a component of Holder's own Justice Department. How much more information is needed before action is taken? How many inmates - how many more children - in government custody will have to endure such degradation and pain before the nation's top law enforcement officials say enough?

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