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Incarcerated Youth at Risk: Is Your Facility Doing Enough to Avoid Liability?
By Jennifer Hulvat, J.D., Full Time Faculty, Undergraduate Criminal Justice, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Published: 02/09/2015

Youth in rec yard As we embark upon another month in this brand new year, we focus on training in the area of Corrections. More and more, correctional officers and administrators find themselves facing critically at-risk youth in correctional settings. That sober fact begs several questions: Are Juvenile Correctional Officers properly trained for that type of population? Are juvenile correctional institutions meeting constitutional mandates in terms of conditions of confinement, medical care, suicide prevention and education? As an attorney, the topic of civil liability comes to my mind immediately, raising questions about the adequacy and efficiency of training and standards for juvenile correctional staff in these critical areas. Those in the field know full well that liability concerns often shape and guide training mandates. As training budgets continue to shrink, correctional administrators are constantly evaluating, and re-evaluating, risk reduction policies and training needs, especially in the area of juvenile corrections.

Correctional personnel are exposed to civil liability, both individually and on a supervisory level, primarily via 42 U.S.C., §1983, the federal procedural vehicle used to sue Government officials for violations of inmates’ constitutional rights. Specifically, Section 1983 provides that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage of any State or territory subjects or causes to be subjected any citizen of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges and immunities, secured by the Constitution and laws shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress.

In its Desktop Guide to Good Detention Practice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) opines that, “In applying §1983, the courts will always strike a balance between the institutional interest in public safety and security and the minor’s constitutional rights. Liability for detention workers often depends on where the balance is struck.” Striving to find that balance includes implementation and adherence to sound training and policy guidelines as well.

The number of detained youth in this country has seen both ebb and flow. The juvenile justice community watched juvenile violent crime arrests rise in the mid-2000s, and then decline through 2012 to its lowest level since at least 1980. The rate in 2012 was 38% below its 1980 level and 63% below the peak year of 1994, per OJJDP reports. Does the reduction in the number of incarcerated youth mean that our recent focus on bettering detention conditions, health care services and educational programming should be reduced as well? Not at all. Incarcerated youth today face new and challenging psychological, drug addiction and gender-based issues, often not properly understood by clinical and correctional staff. What that means, essentially, is that there is real potential for both heightened scrutiny by the Civil Rights investigators from the Justice Department as well as §1983 constitutional deprivation lawsuits being filed on behalf of these incarcerated minors in Federal Court.

A simple inquiry into Department of Justice investigation activity regarding juvenile detention facilities over the past ten years demonstrates how vast the landscape for civil liability really is. For example, in 2011, the Justice Department issued a findings letter regarding one 30-bed, short-term facility in the Midwest, finding that it had violated the constitutional and federal statutory rights of the youth confined there. Specifically, juvenile inmates were found to be: (1) exposed to excessive physical restraint and isolation as a means of discipline; (2) given inadequate educational opportunities; and (3) exposed to great risk of harm from inadequate mental health care, including inadequate screening, monitoring and treatment of youth who are suicidal. Inquiries like these can be expected to continue throughout the country.

Lest the juvenile corrections community find itself lulled into a false sense of security due to the decreasing number of detainees over the last decade, conducting a “liability check” regularly to support an agency’s risk reduction strategy is a must. Training schedules and agendas should be at the forefront of that strategy. Still very much applicable today is the 1996 OJJDP position taken in its Juvenile Detention Training Needs Assessment, “… administrators and staff would do well to take a proactive position on this issue. Recent court decisions affecting adult corrections often provide the basis for litigation in juvenile detention and corrections. Training and standards are considered the best methods for decreasing liability. When juvenile detention agencies provide skill-development training based on a comprehensive analysis of job duties and tasks, the likelihood of harmful litigation is reduced.”

Although not a government-based organization, the American Correctional Association (ACA) publishes and updates training standards pertaining to juvenile correctional facilities. Accreditation is another way to ensure a thorough review of training and policy at work in the institution. While accreditation does not render an institution “judgment proof”, ensuring adherence to accepted industry standards certainly fits soundly within an institutions risk-reduction strategy. As stated in its mission, these standards assist in protecting the agency against litigation; and improve the function of the facility or agency at all levels. The department’s roles include development and monitoring of the ACA standards, facilitation of the ACA accreditation process, and creating training and community resources to implement leading correctional practices within their agency.

How well does your juvenile institution measure up against ACA training standards? It is critical that juvenile detention personnel, “line staff”, as coined by NJDA, must be trained on core principles of correctional law. That training must highlight a clear understanding of how a juvenile’s rights, and implementation of constitutional derived policies and practices, mesh with the daily operation of a juvenile facility. We should be instructed, as always, by trends in correctional litigation in general. However, the “special” characteristics of those juvenile offenders for whom detention is ordered provide new, often “uncharted” territory for many correctional institutions. Failure to train personnel or negligent supervision of those employees in daily operations is often at the heart of correctional litigation in this area. Juvenile correctional institutions must be vigilant in their ongoing attention to the ever-changing needs of the detained juvenile population. Attention to training now could very well mean avoiding costly litigation and investigations later.

Since 2009, attorney Jennifer Hulvat, from the Chicago area, has been a full-time faculty member at Kaplan University, where she teaches law-based courses in Criminal Justice, with an emphasis in Juvenile Justice. Ms. Hulvat is a 25-year practicing lawyer, holding law licenses in both Illinois and Florida. She has been a prosecutor in Miami, Florida as well as in the Chicago area, and has spent several years representing the criminally accused. She was a staff attorney for Chicago’s CLEAR Initiative Project, an aggressive, non-state-funded project to review, edit and align the Criminal Code and the Unified Code of Corrections in Illinois.

Other articles by Jennifer Hulvat


Comments:

  1. CognitiveEmergenceProgram on 02/12/2015:

    What we have found in Oklahoma is the imprisoned youth lack the brain development necessary to learn factual or purposeful information. What is lacking is the Implicit Domain foundation which supports the memory and reasoning abilities in academic settings. Without this Implicit Learning Domain foundation, youth will struggle in trying to remember important details and instructions. Dr. John N. Hatfield www.cog-systems.com 405-706-6950


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