Democracy in America, A preventable problem, The Economist, January 12, 2010
The recent report on rape in juvenile facilities from the Bureau of Justice Statistics makes for horrific reading: 12% of juvenile prisoners report being sexually abused, more than 10% of them by staff (the surprising nugget within this subgroup is that 95%—95%!—of that 10% report having been victimised by female staff). Non-heterosexual inmates report a higher rate of abuse by another youth (12.5%) than their heterosexual counterparts (1.3%). Abuse is also not distributed evenly among facilities: at three of them—one each in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—at least 33% of inmates report being abused, while 18% of facilities surveyed had no reported incidents of sexual abuse.
Lovisa Stannow, who heads an anti-prison-rape advocacy group called Just Detention International, finds hope in the uneven distribution; it shows that sexual abuse is preventable, with the right standards and practices. Fortunately, such standards were included in the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission's report, issued last June; unfortunately, as Carrie Johnson reports in the Washington Post, the Justice Department is taking its sweet time implementing them.
Too many Americans are imprisoned, and reform is a difficult and politically thankless task, as Lexington has written before. Yet even the most hardened law-and-order, three-strikes types ought to find these numbers appalling. They can argue that retribution has some place in sentencing adults, but in juvenile facilities the focus ought to be squarely on rehabilitation, and doing everything possible to make sure these children—and they are children—lead productive rather than ruined lives.