ACLU Report Exposes Unjust Detention Of Youth

May 12, 2008 12:00 am

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Pre-Trial Juvenile Lockup In Massachusetts Disproportionately Impacts Youth Of Color

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BOSTON – A widespread practice in Massachusetts of locking up youth accused of minor offenses and who pose little or no danger to their communities is unfair, threatens public safety and wastes public money, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The report, entitled “Locking Up Our Children: The Secure Detention Of Massachusetts Youth After Arraignment And Before Adjudication,” documents the use of detention by state judges as a rehabilitative tool to frighten youth never convicted of wrongdoing. The report also addresses the woeful lack of placement availability in the state’s child welfare and mental health systems that leave detention as the only viable option for youth who cannot safely be returned to their homes.

“Massachusetts is simply locking up too many kids charged with delinquent behavior before a formal determination of their guilt or innocence,” said Robin Dahlberg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Project and the principal author of the report. “Thousands of youth who are neither flight risks nor dangers to their communities are detained while they await trial. This only exacerbates any existing behavioral problems or educational difficulties and is a significant and wasted expense to taxpayers.”

According to the report, Massachusetts detains a higher percentage of youth pre-trial than 33 other states. The Commonwealth detains 5,000 to 6,000 youth in secure facilities each year, many of whom do not appear to be high-risk. Last year, 78 percent of them were charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies, and more than 80 percent of them were eventually released back into their communities after spending an average of 25 days in lockup awaiting arraignment.

Additionally, youth of color make up 60 percent of those in detention, even though they comprise only 20 percent of Massachusetts’ juvenile population.

The report also concludes that the overuse of pre-trial lockup wastes taxpayer dollars. In 2006, it cost roughly $16,000 to detain a youth for 16 days in a secure lockup. By comparison, it costs taxpayers less than $1,500 to provide six to eight weeks of supervision to ensure that youth permitted to remain at home return to court.

“Far from assisting youth in dealing with the issues that may have gotten them into trouble, secure detention is one of the most accurate predictors of future criminal behavior and other problems,” said Amy Reichbach, racial justice advocate with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This approach is failing both youth and our communities.”

Key communities in Massachusetts are particularly affected by the over-reliance on detention of youth. For example, youth in Worcester County are detained at a higher rate than youth in other counties: 83 percent of detained kids are charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies. In Springfield, 40 percent of all youth arrests are for misbehaving or acting out at school. And in Holyoke, 25 percent of all kids are arrested for school-based offenses.

“Massachusetts should create effective alternatives to pre-trial lockup and reserve secure detention for the relatively small number of children who truly need it,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We should invest our scarce tax dollars more wisely to keep our kids in school rather than in lockup and, in so doing, make our communities safer in the long run.”

A full copy of the report can be found online at: or

Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program can be found online at:

Additional information about the ACLU of Massachusetts can be found online at:

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