The state’s juvenile detention centers lack trained staff and are wrongly detaining arrested youths, as well as placing children in inadequate facilities, according to a report released last Thursday.
The report, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, faulted police departments and probation officers for unnecessarily holding children arrested for minor offenses for long periods of time and placing them with other juveniles accused of more serious crimes.
The report also said that juveniles have limited access to bail magistrates and are sometimes transferred to centers that do not have licensed staff and basic services like showers.
Robin Dahlberg, the primary author of the report, said the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which administers locked-down secure centers known as “alternative lock-up programs,” provides little oversight and relies mainly on federal grants for funding. Dahlberg said the state has refused to fund the centers, even as federal funding has decreased from $6.9 million in 2001 to $1.8 million in 2007 and is expected to continue to drop.
“The state has decided that they want to run these juvenile detention facilities on the cheap,” said Dahlberg. “We could end up with some kids who could get seriously hurt. There’s no accountability here.”
Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, declined to comment on the report.
Around 2,000 youths are detained each year in alternative lock-up programs throughout the state. These centers, meant to house “serious and violent delinquents,” serve a number of police departments since none of those departments have their own separate juvenile lock-up centers.
However, the report said recent data showed that half of those detained at these centers were charged with misdemeanors such as minor drug-related offenses, trespassing or disrupting a school classroom. In addition, the report showed that a disproportionate amount of minority youth were being wrongly held.
Dahlberg said that some of the youths accused of minor crimes were being held overnight but should have been released immediately by a bail magistrate to await arraignment at home.
But Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose office was cited in the report, disagreed.
“That’s the whole point of this. It’s a deterrent,” said Hodgson. “I can’t imagine what four more hours is going to do.”
The report also faulted the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and the Essex County Sheriff’s Office for operating two juvenile detention centers with poor facilities and with staff not properly licensed to deal with children.
Specifically, the report cited the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office for requiring juveniles to wear white and black prison clothes, which the ACLU said is a violation of state policy.
Hodgson called that ACLU accusation “a non-issue” and said his office requires juveniles to change clothes for safety reasons.
“When they come in, they shower and we take their clothes to check for weapons,” Hodgson said. “This doesn’t have any merit.”
Hodgson said his staff was well-trained and his facilities have earned national accreditation twice.
Paul Fleming, a spokesman for the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, also disputed the ACLU’s claim that the center in Lawrence lacked trained staff.
“Indeed, the people we do have are highly trained professionals, and they do the best they can,” said Fleming.
Fleming said the state asked the Essex County Sheriff’s Office to open the temporary holding center, which serves 63 nearby communities.
Among the measures the ACLU report says are needed for improvement:
• Limit secure pre-arraignment detentions to juveniles who are 14 years old or older and to those youths who are “high risk.”
• Better document why juveniles were ordered to be securely detained.
• Open Juvenile Court on weekends and evenings in large metropolitan areas and provide youth with bail magistrates.
• Move alternative lock-up programs to the oversight of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.
• Provide state funding.