Thomas Arrowhead, now 38, was found guilty of a sodomy charge when he was 12 years old. But because he committed the offense before a 2014 Oregon law that allowed judges discretion in requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders, he will likely have to live with the label for the rest of his life.
Thomas Arrowwood has been on Oregon’s registered sex offender list for over two decades, for an offense committed when he was 12 years old.
Now 38, Arrowwood can’t take advantage of a 2014 law that allowed judges discretion to determine whether child sex offenders should remain on the sex offenders’ registry under the supervision of Oregon State Police, or be allowed to start over.
That’s because his offense—sodomy—was adjudicated before the law took effect, with the result that he appears destined to live with the “sex offender” label for the rest of his life.
“It’s worse than being a convicted felon,” said Arrowwood. “Any job I applied to when I got out, they said, ‘Oh, I see you’ve got a record, but I can’t see what happened because it’s a juvenile case, so it’s sealed; but you are a registered sex offender so ….’
“And that was that.”
He’s not alone. Hundreds of Oregon adults who committed their offenses as children before the law was enacted are caught in the same legal limbo, with little chance of escaping.
Some juvenile justice advocates say the practice of keeping child sex offenders on the sex offender registry illustrates serious shortcomings in the nationwide approach to individuals who committed such crimes as children, and amounts to a form of “child abuse.”
According to Nicole Pittman, vice president and director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform, children adjudicated for sex crimes and required to register as sex offenders are four times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex—even though national statistics suggest they only have a 2 percent rate of re-offending.
“Placing children on the registry has to stop because it’s child abuse,” Pittman said.
Oregon has 25,000 registered sex offenders, the highest number of sex offenders per capita in the nation. About 3,400 are registered for crimes committed as juveniles, about 11 percent of the total.
Before the law was changed, sex offenders had a small window of time in which they were eligible to apply for relief, a costly effort that can include hiring a lawyer, filing paperwork in court and attending hearings.
Juvenile sex offenders could apply no less than two years before and no more than five years after their adjudication, or they’d remain on the list forever.
“It was worded pretty poorly and strangely back then,” said Tim O’Donnell, Deputy District Attorney for Oregon’s Marion County. O’Donnell, who works in the county’s juvenile division, cautioned he spoke only for himself and not on behalf of the district attorney’s office.
Arrowwood said he missed that window because he didn’t know about it until it was too late.
“I’ve been registering for 18 years,” he said. “Now, I guess, they say I can never get off the list. I’ll be on it forever. I missed my opportunity, and I won’t ever be removed.”
But not everyone feels that he, or others, should be removed from the registry.
“I think oftentimes in our culture we spend a lot of time ruminating and thinking what happens to an offender and the impact that it has on them,” said BB Beltran, executive director for Sexual Assault Support Services of Oregon’s Lane County, where an estimated 187 offenders who committed crimes as children remain on the sex offenders’ registry.
“What we don’t think about is the impact it has on not just the individual survivors, but their partners and their families. … It’s a domino effect.”
Beltran added that while there is a lot of empathy or pity for a person who made a mistake as a juvenile, “I would like to see the same consideration for both sides.”
A 22-year-old Eugene man named Robert, who The Register-Guard is only identifying by his middle name because he is eligible for relief from registering in the coming months, said he hopes he will be granted a reprieve so he can garner a fresh start.
He was adjudicated for a first-degree sodomy charge at the age of 10.
“I will be the first person to say I don’t feel like anybody who would (sexually abuse) a kid, like they should know what is right and wrong, they deserve to be on that list,” he said.
“As a kid, though, we’re supposed to be in a new millennium, and I feel like there should be some other option out there than just throwing everyone under the bus and under the same label.”
“I am pretty sure that if (my case) was taken care of before I turned 18, or if it never would have happened, I would be in a house with my family, instead of living with my wife and child in a room at my mother-in-law’s house, sharing a room with my wife’s sister. I’ve lived with this label since I was 10 years old,” Robert said.
“I’d be in my own house. My boy would have his own bedroom, and I would be, well, different.”
The Act was named for an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped in 1989, molested and murdered.
Under the law, each state had discretion on what registration information was made public, but dissemination of that information was not required. Two years later, however, Congress amended the act in 1996 with the so-called Megan’s Law — which required law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders that the agencies deemed necessary in the interest of public safety.
In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — named for the 6-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981 — further increased federal registration requirements by categorizing sex offenders into three tiers, with Tier 3 being the most severe and with the most requirements.
Tier 3 offenders are required to update their whereabouts every three months for life. Furthermore, failing to register or update information became a felony under the law.
However, Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of Campaign for Youth Justice, thinks the 2006 law does not do enough to protect children who have offended.
She sees legislation that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed with certain tweaks to the Walsh Act as flawed, in that it doesn’t exclude child offenders from proposed increased sanctions.
While some of the proposed changes benefit juvenile offenders — including a reduction in the number of years juveniles would be required to register and exempting certain adults registered as sex offenders for crimes committed as juveniles from from disclosure — the bill has been packaged with other bills that unnecessarily increase sanctions around sex offenses in general and don’t exclude juveniles, Mistrett said.
“Our concern is that teens who are sexting could get caught up in (the new proposed laws). We are working to pull Adam Walsh from the rest of the package,” Mistrett said.
Consequences of a Lifetime Label
There are real consequences for living with the label for the offender and the public.
A 22-year-old Eugene, Ore., man who asked to be identified by his middle name of James in order to keep his employment, which is a condition of his probation, was adjudicated for inappropriately touching and exposing himself to a family member at the age of 14.
“There is an outside impact of treating everyone with the ‘sex offender’ label the same,” said James, who can apply for relief in a year.
“They’re treating everyone as predatory, when I didn’t go out and attack someone. I was curious, and I broke rules that I didn’t know existed. I am deeply regretful of what I did to this day, but I can’t change that.”
Nationwide, more than 200,000 of the roughly 900,000 people currently listed on sex offender registries were added to those lists as children, some as young as 8 years old.
Dr. Elizabeth LeTourneau, a researcher and expert on child sexual abuse, testified to the Oregon Legislature in 2013 that the registration of juveniles “fails, in any way, to improve community safety.”
Among the evidence she cited were rates of re-offense for juvenile sex offenses, as measured by arrests, charges or convictions.
Those rates are very low across the country, whether or not youth are required to register, LeTourneau said, adding that “the vast majority — 88 percent to 98 percent, depending upon the study — of registered youth do not reoffend.”
But it does happen, which is why some authorities say even the relatively small number of individuals who re-offend is an argument for continued monitoring.
“I don’t think sex offenders can be fixed, period,” said Springfield, Ore., police sgt. Dave Lewis. “It’s strictly my opinion, but having worked my entire career around this, I don’t think sex offenders can be rehabbed.
“One of the only things we can do besides incarceration is to monitor them in some way. And any time someone repeats a sex offense, from a community safety standpoint, we’ve let the people down. I come at it from the side of the victims.
“They are stigmatized forever by what has happened to them. Why shouldn’t the perpetrator be stigmatized in some way?”
Chelsea Deffenbacher, a staff reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., is a 2018 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of an article prepared as part of her fellowship project. The complete story, along with sidebars and videos, can be accessed here.
The population in the tiny rural jail in New York’s Cortland County has spiked since 2013. That has complicated life for the officers who work there.
There was a loud metallic clank and the door to cell block A opens.
Inmates, dressed head to toe in orange, except for their white socks, exited their cells and turned their attention to the open door.
A young inmate entered, holding a stack of trays, emitting an aroma of cooked ham and vegetables, with a Cortland County, N.Y., correction officer close behind.
The cell was quiet. Inmates on the top floor stood still either by their cell or at the nearby community table while the young inmate handed a tray of food to each of them.
When the young inmate and officer went to the cell’s bottom floor, all correction officers in the area watched with anticipation. There were no issues, though. The young inmate finished handing out the trays and exited the cell block to move on to the next.
One correction officer walking by asked, “did he throw it?”
“Not today, or at least not yet,” another answered.
“We have one guy in A block who if he doesn’t like his food will throw his tray,” said Sgt. Rob Ganoung, a supervisor in the jail.
The national debate on how to solve overcrowding in rural jails has usually focused on bail reform and more pretrial services. But a key factor is also the added pressure placed on jail employees.
In many communities, staffing has barely kept up with the demand.
Jail numbers in Cortland County began to spike in 2013. There was a 50 percent increase in the length of time people stayed in the jail and a 37 percent increase in the jail census.
Since 2013, 19 percent of total bookings were people who stayed one to seven days in jail. That was the same total booking percentage for those who stayed 31 days or more.
Officers are constantly tasked dealing with inmate personalities and needs, trying to accommodate space for them –– especially when those personalities don’t mesh –– which can be hectic as the jail was built to hold 57, but averages about 90 inmates a day. Most of an officer’s time can be spent on the road boarding inmates out, or taking them to court.
They must deal with inmates with mental-health problems and addiction. The courts have made a concerted effort to release without bail people accused of lesser crimes, so those who remain face serious charges, sometimes of violent crimes.
Many are convicts accused of parole violations awaiting disposition.
“It’s a day-to-day job,” Correction Officer Sean Ward said. “It could be quiet, then all hell breaks loose.”
It’s a profession Ward and Ganoung said they entered because they wanted a job in law enforcement.
Life in the jail is usually quiet, Ward said. But something different is always going on for correction officers.
Inmates are on a daily routine. Breakfast. Recreation time. Down time. Lunch. Dinner. Programs and court hearings mixed within.
While the duties of correction officers follow that routine, an officer’s individual tasks can vary from day to day.
They could be stationed to monitor a cell block, or monitor the cameras, which cover about every angle of the jail, in the sally port. The officer who monitors the cameras also controls the panel to unlock any door in the facility.
They could also have to transport inmates to a court hearing, another jail or rehabilitation center.
In a matter of a couple of hours last Wednesday, two groups of inmates were brought to and from court.
When inmates return from court, officers need keep each inmate’s paper work in order, looking at their charges, sentencing and bail to see if anything changed from the court hearing. Then put all that information into the jail’s system.
It can get hectic, Ganoung said. Especially when the jail’s population rises and inmates have to be boarded out, too.
It’s the supervisor’s job to keep track of which inmates have to go and make sure officers are available to do so.
“The work load triples,” he said.
In June, there were 108 inmates in the jail, Ward, said. Every morning, officers were going to different counties to pick up inmates. He said he’s spent a whole day just driving inmates back and forth from jail.
The Sheriff’s Office is still looking for seven corrections officers, jail Capt. Nick Lynch said.
“It makes it a little more hectic being down officers,” Ganoung said.
An officer scheduled for one shift could have to pick up another one and end up working a 16-hour day.
Driving inmates around takes up most of at least two officers’ time, as they travel in pairs.
Part of the problem is the rise in opioid use.
When Ward started working as a correction officer 3 1/2 years ago, he said it was mind-blowing to see the amount of drug activity in Cortland.
Some inmates will try to sneak drugs into the jail in parts of their body where officers wouldn’t be able to find them, Ganoung said.
“There’s always something to look out for,” he said.
When inmates come into the jail, they’re forced to get sober, and then mental-health issues arise because the drugs no longer mask them, Ganoung said. He and Ward stated one of the most challenging aspects of the job is dealing with inmates who have a mental-health issue.
Those inmates are some of the hardest to deal with because there’s no knowing what’s going on or what the issue is, Ward said.
Almost every inmate that comes into the county jail has some kind of underlying mental health issue, said Chris Cushing, the forensic mental health counselor in the jail.
All the staff in the jail is trained in lower-level mental health issues, Undersheriff Budd Rigg said.
“One day you’re a correction officer, then the next day you’re trying to mentor them (inmates), giving them life goals,” Ward said.
Some inmates promise they’ll never get in trouble again, and don’t return, Ward said. But there are some inmates officers know will be back.
One inmate currently in the jail has been booked 45 to 48 times in the past 10 years, he said.
For the most part, the inmates are respectful to the correction officers once they get to know them, Ward said, but may give new officers a hard time.
Inmates rarely fight, he said, only one he’s seen in his 3 1/2 years with the sheriff’s office. Most fights are over what channel to watch on the television, he said.
Some inmates have stuffed their clothes in their toilet and flooded their cell, Ward said. The dangerous part about that is an officer must go into the cell to turn the water off.
Ward said he’s never been concerned about coming to work. “You know what you’re getting yourself into,” he said.
Officers’ main goal is to help inmates so they don’t return to jail.
There are several programs in the jail for inmates to go to, such as peer services and health services.
But not all go, Ward said. Even when they should, but they can’t be required to.
The exception is inmates who lack a high school diploma; they must take general equivalency diploma classes in the jail. Several have left the jail with a GED. It’s one thing inmates do like going to, Ganoung said.
More organizations would like to provide services at the jail, but the facility lacks space. As the jail population increased over time, rooms that use to be used for programs turned into housing.
For now, Ganoung said they make do with what they have.
While days in the jail can be quiet, officers are always busy.
“There’s always stuff to do,” Ward said. “You’re always wondering what’s going to happen next.”
It could be a fight in the dorm, or an inmate throwing their tray and food. “You know it’s not always a repetitive day,” he said.
Nicholas Graziano, a staff writer for The Cortland Standard, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is the final story in a five-part series looking at jail overcrowding. The full series is available here.
In a national first, authorities in Springfield, Mo., are housing jail inmates in semi-trailers to temporarily relieve overcrowding in the county jail. Other jails across the country are looking at the idea seriously.
In a former parking lot next to the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Mo., six 52-foot semi-trailers sit surrounded by chain-link fence topped with swirls of razor wire.
Within the stainless steel walls, 108 men eat, sleep and live for days, weeks or months at a time. They are confined in a space that, per man, is less than half the size of a ping-pong table.
Most are awaiting trial. Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott estimates that about 98 percent of people being held in jail have been charged with a crime and are waiting for an official declaration of guilt — or innocence.
The trailer jail began housing inmates about a year ago. County officials called it the first of its kind in the country, and a cost-effective temporary solution to a jail overcrowding problem that has plagued Greene County for more than a decade.
According to officials, the trailer jail could temporarily relieve some of the mounting pressures while Greene County works toward a more permanent fix of expanding the jail’s capacity — by renovating the existing building and constructing an addition across the street — with money from a new sales tax. The opening of the jail expansion is still years away.
Springfield was apparently the first city to become home to a trailer jail, but it’s not the last. The creator of the project, Seymour-based company All Detainment Solutions, is now capitalizing on a nationwide jail-overcrowding crisis.
The company appears to have been busy in the past 12 months. It has secured a multi-million dollar contract to build a trailer jail in Canyon County, Idaho. Dozens of officials from other inmate-inundated counties across the country have been traveling to Springfield to see the first trailer jail for themselves, with the question: “Could this work for us?”
At the same time, legal experts say the design of the trailer jail raises major red flags. One called it a “recipe for disaster.” Others cautioned that keeping people in those crowded conditions could be considered “inhumane” and amount to constitutional violations.
“I suggest to the sheriff that they find another way before they’re sued, because they’re going to be sued,” said Sharon Dolovich, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Prison Law & Policy Program.
Some drew comparisons to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous “Tent City Jail,” which closed last year after housing inmates for more than two decades — a comparison that Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott strongly disputed.
Arnott said housing inmates in what he sometimes jokingly refers to as the “trailer park jail” isn’t an ideal setup. He’d prefer to have more space in a permanent facility and more officers to supervise the inmates. However, he adamantly denies allegations that the conditions inside the temporary facility are less than adequate.
He scoffs at the assertion that conditions in the jail are “inhumane.”
“Inhumane is a ridiculous word to use,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my staff in an inhumane area to work.”
“This jail is very clean and well-maintained, and as far as space issues go, it is what it is,” Arnott said. “… Most sheriffs who come to tour it think it’s better than their existing jail … People come from all over and say, ‘This is a fantastic idea.'”
Beyond a few minor structural tweaks that had to be made in the early months of the temporary jail’s operation, Arnott said the facility has worked well.
“Do we want to keep it forever? No. But it’s a great solution for now,” he said.
All Detainment Solutions declined to answer the News-Leader’s questions about the growth of their business and their temporary jail design.
Though the trailer jail in Greene County is meant to be temporary, no one has a clear idea on how long it will be used.
County officials have hinted at the possibility of keeping the temporary jail open even after the expansion of the permanent facility is completed.
Between 2010 and 2017, the average number of Greene County inmates grew about 66 percent, according to numbers provided by a consultant hired by the county to study the jail last year.
Arnott estimates his office could be responsible for overseeing more than 1,000 inmates on a daily basis by the time the expansion is finished, expected to be a few years from now.
One major factor contributing to the population growth is an increase in the average length of stay, the study said. On average, an inmate is held in the jail for 24 days. Five years ago, it was only 16 days. Three years is the longest any current occupant of Greene County Jail has been held.
County officials often say that overcrowding at the jail is merely a symptom of a larger problem with an underfunded criminal justice system and community services. Too few public defenders, prosecutors or judges means cases take longer to move through the system, they say. And disjointed and inadequate services to help those with mental health and substance abuse problems aren’t keeping many offenders from getting sent to jail time and again.
As of Dec. 17, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office was responsible for 828 inmates, according to Cpl. James Craigmyle. The main jail facility has a capacity of 601 beds. An additional 108 live in the trailers next door. That leaves about 100 a day who are shipped to other counties across the state. That number is expected to grow, according to Arnott.
Greene County is not alone.
Jail overcrowding is a national crisis, particularly in medium, small and rural counties. According to Vera Institute of Justice, the national pretrial incarceration rate has more than tripled between 1973 and 2013. That’s for people being held in jail who have been charged with a crime but have yet to be tried.
About once or twice a month, different county officials and sheriffs from across the country visit Greene County’s trailer jail, according to Arnott.
They’re all facing the same problem — “They have so many inmates and nowhere to go with them,” Arnott said. Even for sheriffs who do have the bed space, they often don’t have the money to hire the number of staff needed to oversee the inmates, he said.
They come from all over to see the trailer jail in action, with the idea that the model that Greene County is pioneering might be a solution for them as well.
“There is really no other place like it, so we have people coming in and seeing how we make it work,” Arnott said.
A News-Leader search found that several places — from Florida to Idaho — have considered contracting with All Detainment Solutions since the company built its first trailer jail in Greene County. They include New Port Richey, Florida; Clinton County, Missouri; and Hancock County, Indiana.
So far, at least one other community has committed to leasing a trailer jail from the company.
In August, Canyon County, Idaho, officials approved a $4.5 million lease agreement with All Detainment Solutions for a temporary jail, where they plan to house 122 women, the Idaho Press reported.
The Idaho trailer jail’s design is notably more spacious. According to Idaho Press, the female inmates will be held in 28 semi-trailers, more than four times as many trailers than those that house Greene County’s 108 inmates.
Arnott told the News-Leader that the state of Missouri, unlike some other states, doesn’t have minimum jail construction standards. Jails are required to follow building codes.
The American Correctional Association offers operational standards meant to ensure safety and security, protect agencies against litigation and more. The association says cells and rooms used for holding inmates should provide per person at least 25 square feet of “unencumbered space,” or space that is not blocked by any furnishings or fixtures.
The trailer jail and all but two housing units in the entire Greene County Jail facility do not meet the American Correctional Association’s standards. According to numbers provided by Arnott, each inmate in the trailer jail has less than 22 square feet of unencumbered space.
“(They) do not meet the ACA standards due to the amount of inmates we need to house with the space provided,” Arnott said. “We do what we can.”
Jails are not required to meet those standards, and according to Arnott, most in Missouri do not.
Orange Shipping Container
The idea for the temporary jail came from an orange shipping container that sits next to the jail. Arnott said he originally bought the shipping container to use as storage. It didn’t take long for him to start thinking — what if Greene County refurbished it to store people?
It took several years for Greene County to find a company that could provide the type of modular facility they were looking for. Earlier proposals were too expensive, energy-inefficient and raised security concerns, Arnott said.
It was a newly created company, by brothers Timothy and Anthony Kelly, who specialized in building modular structures used as emergency shelters after natural disasters. Greene County would be their first jail client.
Arnott said he and his employees worked collaboratively with All Detainment Solutions to create a design — using insulated refrigerator semi-trailers, instead of shipping containers as Arnott first imagined. They implemented a variety of security features, including motion detectors, multiple layers of razor wire, cameras and more.
“I had concerns, when the trailers first rolled in, whether it would work or not,” Arnott said. “When you look at it from the outside, it looks very small. When you get in and have it all connected, it seems a lot bigger.”
Inside Greene County’s ‘trailer park jail’
Patrick John Field said he was moved into the trailer jail the first day it opened in December 2017.
Field is familiar with life inside the Greene County Jail. His father estimated that his son has spent about half of his adult life in prison or various county jails.
However, living inside a series of semi-trailers with about 100 other men was a new experience for Field, whose most recent stint in detention stemmed from charges of domestic violence.
There were problems with the plumbing in the trailers, Field told the News-Leader in March. Water leaked out of the base of the toilets, creating a pool of standing liquid in the combination shower-and-bathroom trailer, he said.
“You could see there was standing urine and fecal matter. We had to walk through that in our shower shoes,” Field said.
He said inmates left trails of contaminated water to other parts of the trailer jail, including places where they eat and sleep. He called it a “health hazard.”
Field said he fell ill multiple times. He blamed the conditions inside the trailer jail.
There were other problems. Rain leaked through air vents on the trailers and pooled on the floor, he said, and there was mold in one of the “sleeper” trailers. He worried about safety and wondered if the officers staffing the trailer jail would be able to squeeze through the narrow trailers to break up a conflict if a big fight broke out.
For Field, it wasn’t all bad. In one way he preferred staying in the temporary jail over the permanent jail, he said.
Inmates are allowed to move around inside the trailers, he said. They’re not stuck behind a locked door inside a cell, as is the case in some other parts of the jail. The feeling of being trapped in a room gives him anxiety.
Not everybody feels that way, though, Field said.
“A lot of people have flipped out,” he said, noting that some of the inhabitants of the trailer jail have post-traumatic stress disorder and react poorly to loud noises and crowds.
Rachel Field, his mother, told the News-Leader, “I think they deserve sanitary conditions … There needs to be some level of propriety here — just proper conditions, even though they may have committed crimes.”
Online court records show that Patrick John Field pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic violence in September. He is no longer in the Greene County jail.
Arnott acknowledged there were issues with the plumbing and with rainwater getting into the trailers through air vents during the trailers’ first months of use. He said the water from the toilets did not contain fecal matter or urine.
Those problems were quickly fixed by the company, Arnott said.
He hasn’t seen any mold, either. The walls and fixtures inside the trailer jail are stainless steel, which is nonporous and easy to clean, he said. There are daily facilities inspections. The trailers also feature a “state-of-the-art” HVAC system that regulates humidity, barometric pressure and air quality, according to Arnott.
The permanent jail has long had issues with humidity, and a grand jury, tasked with inspecting county buildings, recently called it “dangerously crowded.” The grand jury noted problems with mold and odor in the main jail facility.
“I would say (the trailers are) better than our other units,” Arnott said.
One afternoon in December, Arnott and Major Royce Denny offered to take a News-Leader reporter on a tour of the trailer jail.
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott talks about housing prisoners in the new trailer jail. Photo by Andew Jensen/ News-Leader
Though it was a chilly day, the air inside the trailers was warm and musty, an unavoidable effect of having more than 100 men living in tight quarters, Arnott explained. In the temporary jail, the HVAC system circulates fresh air into the facility every 12 minutes, making the odor less pungent than other jail pods, added Denny.
Inmates were crowded into the three “sleeper” trailers, where three-tiered bunk beds are built into the walls. Some men laid down on their thin blue mattresses. Others had craned their necks and backs into unnatural positions in order to sit upright.
Arnott stopped at the end of a narrow walkway, greeted the inmates and asked: “I got a question … would you rather be in this unit or would you rather be in a regular pod?”
He got mixed responses. Two or three men said they’d rather be in a regular pod.
Another said he prefers the trailers: “It’s got its ups and downs, man. There’s more personal space in the (other) pods. This has got a little more freedom to move around a little more and socialize. I like it out here and the rec yard is nice.”
The men inside the trailer jail are, for the most part, allowed to roam between the different rooms, Arnott explained. For a breath of fresh air and a peek at the sky, they can step outside into the recreational yard, which is blocked in by the walls of the trailers and a metal mesh canopy. The canopy serves two purposes — to keep inmates in and to keep drones and contraband out.
One compartment is dedicated to showers and toilets. There was no feces or urine in sight when the News-Leader visited.
Two other trailers are combined to create a “day room,” outfitted with chairs, tables and phones.
“This is temperature-controlled. They have telephones. They have television. They have tablet computers. They have a snack machine,” Arnott said. “… I think we treat everyone fairly, whether you’re in the temporary jail or the regular jail. It’s all the same.”
‘Recipe for disaster’?
Four national experts were asked to review photos and previously published information about the trailer jail.
They all agreed: They have never seen a design like it before.
Most reacted with sharp criticism, raising concerns about the safety and security of the facility, as well as the physical and psychological impact of crowded conditions on inmates.
One, a former sheriff himself, said he felt sympathy for Arnott, who has little control over the jail population and must make do with the budget he’s given.
Dolovich, a law professor and the director of UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program said, “The fact it’s unique doesn’t make it not bad, something can be uniquely bad. There’s a reason why nobody has done this, and it’s not because they’re not thinking creatively.”
Arnott defended the county’s facility. He said the critics must be “uneducated” about jails and unfamiliar with the way Greene County’s trailer jail is built and run.
“These people have obviously not seen it (in person),” Arnott said. “I think they need to come see the facility. I would welcome them to come down to the facility. We feel it’s very appropriate and it’s a good use of tax dollars. We’ve had very few problems.”
Dolovich said her immediate reaction upon seeing photos of the trailer jail was “horror.”
“To anyone who suggests that these conditions are acceptable for those people who have found themselves in jail, I would ask them to consider — if it’s their loved ones, their sons and daughters who find themselves in those conditions — would they think it’s OK? Anyone who would answer that question in the affirmative is not being honest,” Dolovich said.
Dolovich said she’s worried for inmates’ health.
“It doesn’t have to be the Hilton, but we would be concerned if we held animals in those conditions,” she said. “… Every human being needs a certain amount of personal space. No one can live like this without suffering serious physical and psychological harm.”
Dolovich said the situation appears to be a “clear constitutional violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown’s People Law Center in Chicago, appeared to agree with Dolovich.
“Someone is going to be seriously injured and they’re going to bring a big case,” Mills said.
*”It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of these people are innocent. They’re not convicted of anything. It’s not constitutional to use a jail to punish people,” Mills said.
He said the conditions in Greene County’s trailer jail appeared “inhumane.”
“You’re stuffing a lot of people in like sardines in this tiny little space,” he said. “The potential for interpersonal conflicts, and just the discomfort level, is astounding.”
David Shapiro, director of appellate litigation for the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school and former staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called the trailer jail design a “recipe for disaster.”
“It would be hard to imagine a worse design from the standpoint of safety and security,” Shapiro said. “Not to mention the fact it just looks miserable to be living in those bunks in those incredibly cramped spaces.”
Shapiro said the long, narrow layout would make it difficult for officers to see what’s happening in all parts of the trailer jail at all times.
Even with security cameras monitoring the inmates, Shapiro said, navigating the trailers would pose a security concern for officers.
“In that really tight space and nowhere to retreat to, it would be pretty easy to grab an officer as he or she goes by, to ambush the officer or to take the officer hostage,” he said.
Gary Raney, former sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, and past chair of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said he is sympathetic to the plight of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
“Sheriffs are often faced with jail overcrowding, and it appears Sheriff Arnott has been dealing with this problem for some time,” Raney said.
“The difficult thing for a sheriff is that he or she has no control over how many people are in jail or how long they stay. Therefore, the sheriff has to manage the jail as best he or she can within the budget given.”
Raney called the trailer jail concept “new and intriguing” but noted that it might follow other patterns of temporary jail housing, “most of which have proven problematic.”
He said that the furniture and fixtures inside the temporary jail appear well-built. However, generally speaking, temporary housing for inmates presents issues.
“Most who have used short-term fixes … have found that they do not provide adequate security, they wear rapidly and the living conditions can lead to litigation,” Raney said.
Raney and every other expert that the News-Leader interviewed talked about the importance of reducing the overall jail population by keeping people charged with low-level crimes out of jail.
Arnott said the Greene County criminal justice system has done that.
“We have done a lot of initiatives to cut back the jail population,” he said. “We have every specific court you can imagine.”
What Arnott is referencing is Greene County’s collection of treatment courts, which includes veterans court, homeless court, mental health court, drug court and more. These are special diversionary programs that offer an alternative to being sent to jail. They are customized to serve people’s needs by connecting them to existing services such as therapy, substance abuse treatment and programs to teach them life skills.
“The population that we have in the jail are the child molesters, the armed robbers, the homicide suspects, the rapists and the serious domestic violence cases,” Arnott said.
“Those are the people who stay in jail … I can guarantee you, this sheriff is not going to go to the judges and say, we need to let some of these people out, because we need to keep them (in jail).”
Commissioner Lincoln Hough, one of the county officials who approved the contract with All Detainment Solutions, said the trailer jail is a “Band-Aid” solution that has worked for the time being.
“It’s not a long-term solution,” Hough said. “It’s a short-term solution and I think the long-term solution I’ve always believed in investing in programs that curb recidivism and head off individuals that will end up in our facility.”
.Alyssa Zhou is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of her reporting project. The full version is available here.
After New York State began closing state mental health institutions, the jail population increased—adding a burden to already overcrowded facilities. But officials in Cortland County came up with an innovative strategy to address the problem.
On an average day, about 10 percent of the 90 individuals held in the tiny Cortland County Jail in upstate New York are suffering from mental illness.
That would be a significant number in any rural facility, but Cortland has only 57 designated beds to begin with─along with 30 additional slots in a former exercise space that has been converted into a dormitory.
So the presence of people who would be better handled in an institution rather than a jail adds an extra burden for prison authorities.
And the number of such individuals is “increasing,” says Cortland County Jail Capt. Nick Lynch.
Helping an individual with the right treatment instead of forcing him to languish in jail can make a huge difference—if the need is recognized in time.
Cortland County Undersheriff Budd Rigg tells the story of an out-of-towner who was arrested after breaking a window at a local supermarket. The man was under the influence of drugs, but during his initial screening, officials realized that substance abuse was a sign of something more serious.
“It became more and more evident, (there) was a serious mental health issue,” Rigg recalled.
Referrals were made to get help for the man. It got to the point where he had to be on constant watch, due to concerns that he might harm himself.
“We can’t force medication in jail like they can in an institution,” Rigg said. “So we finally got this individual to an institution through OMH (the state Office of Mental Health), and got him stabilized on medications.
“(When) he came back, he was a different person.”
Once back on his medication, the man was returned to jail until he went before a judge.
“The charges weren’t that severe; they realized it was mental health, psychosis,” Riggs said of the man, who worked for a military contractor. The individual paid restitution for the damage he caused, and was allowed to return home to North Carolina.
His mother called Riggs a month later, crying.
“(She thanked) us for …not just throwing him in a cell and locking him away, or sending him off to prison,” Rigg said.
The state has ordered the county to find a way to relieve jail overcrowding, but its ability to divert inmates with mental-health troubles to other facilities and programs is limited, and the number of mental-health facilities available is dropping.
New York State has closed several mental health facilities, effectively forcing many people with mental health to end up in jail when they have brushes with the law, said Bill Zipfel, superintendent of the Genesee County Jail in New York.
The state Department of Mental Health closed about nine centers in a three-year period.
In 2017, the state served about 139,000 people with mental health issues, a fraction of the estimated 865,000 mentally ill people, reports the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank.
The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued a long-term policy of trying to reduce mental-health facilities. Non-forensic state psychiatric centers lost 15 percent of their capacity since 2014, while their average daily census dropped 12 percent.
It’s an issue nationwide.
People with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the U.S. about two million times a year, according to the Stepping Up Initiative — a national effort to divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment.
Almost three-quarters of those inmates have drug and alcohol use problems.
“A lot of mental health is masked with self-medication, drug use,” Rigg said.
New York State Assembly Member Gary Finch (R-Springport), a member of the assembly corrections committee, said the state’s closure of mental health facilities amounted to “putting people on the street” with no resources for help. Then they end up in jail.
Instead of providing funding for new programs, Finch said, the state should invest in existing programs that can help people.
In the last five years, Cortland County’s female population in jail has gone up about 300 percent — the largest growing inmate population in the county and state. Many of the female inmates are victims of years of abuse, but their underlying problems are rarely recognized, said Riggs.
“It’s 100 percent a mental health issue,” Rigg said.
Abuse is not always the reason for mental illness among inmates, Rigg said, although it is the reason for most.
There are some who have had a mental health diagnosis all their life, went off their medication because they started feeling better — from the medication — and then did something they normally wouldn’t, like tax evasion, Rigg said.
“Some of them are truly only here because of the mental health and people just didn’t know what to do with them,” Rigg said. “They have done something, annoyed someone on Main Street, and ended up in jail.”
In the absence of state help, the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office has begun to be more pro-active, Rigg said.
Every individual entering the Cortland County Jail is screened for mental illness, Rigg said.
“One hundred percent of our staff are trained in lower-level mental health issues,” Rigg said. “Our staff is trained in screening and identifying any emergency needs.”
A correction officer watching a housing unit is able to identify behavior changes and knows when to intervene, Rigg said.
Unlike many jails, the county mental health authorities have paid for a forensic counselor on site, who is available 35 hours a week for one-on-one counseling.
“She meets with people regularly so we don’t get those flair ups like you see in other jails, and, knock on wood, that helps with our suicide attempts,” Rigg said.
“That one office, 35 hours a week, is worth its weight in gold.”
The lack of mental health centers does create a void, Rigg said. But Cortland County has a Mobile Crisis Team, which he said helps make sure those with a mental illness never make it to jail, or so police don’t have to get involved.
The team, formed at the beginning of the year, is a grant-funded program run by Liberty Resource of Syracuse, N.Y., which assists all law enforcement agencies in Cortland Count.y. There are teams in four other counties, too. Those on the team in Cortland Cortland all live in the county, and work for local agencies, such as the county Mental Health Department, Cortland Regional Medical Center, county Probation Department and others.
In the past three years, between the five counties, the Mobile Crisis Team has diverted 80 percent of the people it has helped from either going to the hospital or jail, said Theresa Humennyj, regional program director for Liberty Resource.
While sometimes police involvement may be necessary, Rigg acknowledged having an officer present, and potentially having to handcuff someone could escalate the situation.
That’s where the Mobile Crisis Team steps in.
“People get anxious or scared,” Humennyj said about how people act when there is a police presence. “It turns into he said-she said blaming, and a person might make bad choices.
“We try to come in so it doesn’t get to that point and they avoid jail.”
The teams divert between 2 percent and 3 percent of the jail’s population to other services, Rigg said.
“Our local community has done so much on the outside,” Rigg said. “So the more we address the issues in the community, the more it helps the jail.”
This is a condensed and edited version of the first part of a five-part series examining jails and mental illness. Nicholas Graziano, a staff writer at The Cortland Standard, is a 2018 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. The complete article and other parts of the series can be accessed here.
One Mississippi county claims its contract with a private healthcare provider has helped cut costs and reduce its exposure to lawsuits.
With health care for inmates one of the main drivers of the high cost of incarceration around the U.S., some local jail authorities are looking at for-profit providers as one way of reducing the bill.
How well is it working?
Since 2008, Mississippi’s Lauderdale County has operated under an annual renewable contract with Southern Health Partners to provide services for defendants held at the Lauderdale County Detention Facility. The current year’s contract, ending in September, 2019, will cost the county just over $448,000—a two percent increase over the previous year, roughly in line with inflation.
But compared to decades past, this marks a decrease in healthcare expenses for the county.
“Before we got into this agreement, we were spending almost $600,000,” Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun said.
Ward Calhoun. Photo courtesy The Meridian Star
“If an inmate ended up in a hospital for weeks on end, you’re talking about a substantial amount of money,” Calhoun said. “Once we incarcerate a person, we — meaning the government — have to care for them.”
At the Lauderdale County Detention Facility, a nurse is on site 16 hours of the day, with another nurse on call for the remaining eight hours. Southern is also responsible for dispensing medications as well as running an on-site pharmacy and doctor’s office, which is capable of taking X-Rays.
“Our goal, if at all possible, is to keep it in-house,” Calhoun said.
According to 2017 and 2018 service reports from Southern, most of its care for defendants includes blood pressure and blood sugar checks. In 2017, Southern conducted 4,459 blood pressure checks and 2,215 blood sugar checks for the 3,158 defendants who came through the facility’s doors.
As of the end of September, 2,057 defendants came through the facility in 2018, requiring 2,209 blood sugar checks and 3,476 blood pressure checks.
Other medical necessities for defendants may include caring for pregnant women (10 in 2017, three in 2018), treating defendants with HIV (39 in 2017, three in 2018) or placing defendants on suicide watch (64 in 2017, 62 in 2018).
Fifty defendants saw a mental health professional in the first nine months of 2018 while 77 total defendants saw a mental health professional in 2017.
“We do have a co-pay of $10,” Calhoun said, adding that cash is contraband within the facility.
Defendants use money from their canteen, which their family can contribute to throughout their imprisonment, to make that co-pay.
For a defendant without money, and no family support, their account is “dinged,” Calhoun said, and they owe the county money.
A judge has discretion to release a defendant on their own recognizance, meaning defendants swear to show up for court dates without paying bail, for medical reasons.
Detoxing a ‘Regular’ Part of Care
Melissa McCarter, the jail administrator, said that part of the intake for the facility includes a medical assessment and, at times, that includes detoxifying people from alcohol or drugs.
“We see it on a regular basis,” Calhoun said about the frequency of the detox process.
“But it requires them to be honest about what they took,” McCarter said. “And it depends on the severity — if we have to give them space until they’ve detoxed and they’re safe.”
In 2017, Southern reported 51 detox protocols, for an average of four a month. Detox protocols decreased slightly so far in 2018, with 28 total detox protocols, averaging three a month.
Defendants without insurance, who may have lapsed on their healthcare outside of the facility, complicate healthcare within the facility, McCarter said.
If the number of defendants in the facility exceeds 280 people, a fee of $1.98 will be added on top of the contract for each additional defendant, according to the contract.
The county exceeded this 280-person cap three times in 2017, in January, February and May, by 11 defendants, two defendants and one defendant, respectively. This cost the county roughly $28 in fees. The population of the facility hasn’t exceeded 280 in 2018, according to the service reports.
The Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department claims that using a private health contractor, reduces healthcare costs over the previous system of county-provided healthcare. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star
The contract allows for up to $40,000 in out-of-facility services, such as ambulance costs or procedures done at a local hospital. Beyond that, the county pays. In the previous year, the county paid $20,600 more than that $40,000 cap.
“We’ve had a multitude of years where we’ve exceeded $90,000,” said Sheriff Billy Sollie.
According to the service reports, 49 defendants were admitted to the emergency room in 2017 and 26 so far in 2018. Outside medical visits (which includes any specialized visits) numbered 44 and 54 in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Most recently, Southern added a $39,000 cap on pharmacy costs, as discussed by the county’s Board of Supervisors during budget negotiations, who ultimately approve each year’s contract.
With recent reforms recommended by the Mississippi Supreme Court, however, the number of defendants held pre-trial on bond amounts they can’t afford may be reduced, decreasing the number of defendants in the facility.
“If fewer people are being held pre-trial, then we’re going to have lower medical costs and meal costs,” Sollie said.
The number of defendants seeking care from Southern has decreased in 2018 compared to 2017.
Though reports for 2018 are incomplete, the average number of defendants per month decreased from 263 to 229. January of 2017 began with 291 defendants and the year ended with 253 defendants.
Calhoun sees another benefit to the contract with Southern Health Partners: legal protection.
Southern carries the responsibility for its court proceedings and Calhoun said defendants in the facility most frequently file complaints in federal court about their healthcare.
“That’s one of the leading issues we get sued over — not providing adequate healthcare,” Calhoun said.
One example is the wrongful death suit of Davie Lee Chapman, who died in the custody of Lauderdale County on Feb. 2, 2015 from bronchial asthma, according to an autopsy report.
In December of 2014, Chapman alleged that Southern, specifically Sheila Hamlin, a Southern nurse, and John Mutziger, a Southern doctor, had denied him medical care by not giving him adequate breathing treatments for his asthma, a rash and hernia.
“Been having trouble with my asthma for several weeks. Clog up so bad, I couldn’t sleep, half the time,” Chapman said in his complaint. “I have request(ed) outside help for my skin condition, hernia and my asthma… We inmate(s) been charge(d) like we got a job. $10 for (a) clinic visit and $2 for (over the counter) medication.”
In a Mississippi Bureau of Investigations death investigation report, attached to the court records, various logs and sign-in sheets detail the efforts of guards to administer breathing treatments and Chapman’s multiple visits to the on-site clinic. Chapman requested to be released on his own recognizance, or released without bond, in order to continue seeking outside treatment.
The case was settled in December of 2016 and dismissed by Judge Daniel P. Jordan III the following May, according to the court docket. Details of the settlement aren’t included and the county hasn’t yet responded to an information request about the settlement.
In a different case, Gary Hugh Curtis filed an Aug. 2012 complaint against the county for failing to deliver his medication, which he said was prescribed by a doctor outside of the facility.
“The medical records submitted reflect that Plaintiff was being treated conservatively by Defendant (Sheila) Hanlin with medication, but was sent to the emergency room as soon as the need for further treatment was identified.
Mere disagreement with the prescribed course of medical treatment does not give rise to a Section 1983 claim, nor does medical malpractice,” the report filed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda R. Anderson said.
Anderson, adding that the evidence didn’t suggest the defendants had been “deliberately indifferent,” dismissed the claim on Nov. 3, 2014.
For reasons such as those, Calhoun sees multiple benefits to working with Southern to provide healthcare, rather than supplying it completely on the county’s dime, even if the costs increase annually.
“It is the best way to do business,” Calhoun said about hiring companies such as Southern. “It’s not an option for government to not take care of them.”
Whitney Downard is a staff writer for The Meridian Star and a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published this month as part of Downard’s fellowship project. The full version is available here.
The Florida Times-Union spent more than 20 months examining the causes of juvenile homicide in Jacksonville. A central finding based on listening to the people who committed the crimes, was the critical role played by trauma and other adverse childhood experiences.
Two were only 13 years old. Three were just a few months shy of turning 18.
Four committed their crimes in this decade, and just as many have spent more than 30 years behind bars. At least two sold sex for money. One witnessed his father being shot. Another was given beer for the first time when he was four years old.
All but four had been arrested before. For most, they’d lost count of exactly how many times.
These Florida inmates and dozens more have much in common: They played a part in ending someone’s life; and those crimes happened when they were still children.
Duval County, known for years as Florida’s murder capital, also leads the state in kids who kill.
In the last decade, 73 Duval County children have been arrested in cases of murder and manslaughter.
Only one other county has more: Miami-Dade, which has nearly three times the youth population. Taking into account population differences, no other large county in Florida has a higher rate of minors arrested on these charges than Duval.
Last year here, four teenagers were arrested and charged as adults with second-degree murder. Two more kids — ages 11 and 14 — were charged in juvenile court with manslaughter, each in connection with the shooting deaths of other children. So far in 2018, two more teens have been charged in homicides.
Why is this happening? What leads kids and teens to kill?
And what, if anything, can be done about it?
To learn more, The Florida Times-Union spent more than 20 months examining juvenile homicide in Jacksonville. A major component of the reporting: listening to the people who committed the crimes.
The newspaper wrote letters to 103 of these inmates from Duval County. Fifty-seven wrote back. Of those, 25 answered an extensive survey about their lives developed by the newspaper in consultation with experts in mental health and criminal justice.
What these inmates reveal in hundreds of handwritten pages is wrenching in its repetition: Their fathers were absent. Their mothers and caregivers did the best they could, but struggled. They fell in with the wrong crowd. They slid into crime. They needed help they never received.
The reason so many kids commit murder in Jacksonville is not because they are murderers, but because they are everything else: drug dealers, robbers, thieves, rapists and a bunch of other types of criminals whose crimes of choice has a great likelihood of leading to a murder.”
The Times-Union’s research revealed four overarching contributing factors that are well known. What the newspaper’s research showed with stark clarity was the number of children who face many or all of these challenges:
Trauma. Most of the Duval County kids who end up convicted in a slaying have a history of distressing events happening around them and to them. It’s typically not just one or two bad things; trauma is often a constant companion in their homes, neighborhoods and schools.
Family dysfunction.The strain in families is often generational. Parents who were never parented appropriately will struggle to appropriately discipline and set expectations for their children. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents had divorced or separated parents, and just as many lived with someone who abused drugs or alcohol. More than half said they felt unloved or unimportant at home.
Violent environment.Violence is nothing new to most of the teens who end up in prison for killing. Eighty-four percent said they’ve been shot at and 72 percent had witnessed someone get shot. More than a third said a close family member had been murdered.
Dangerous peer influences.When kids commit crimes, they’re more likely to do so with a friend or in a group. That’s true for 84 percent of the kids who took the Times-Union’s survey. Devoid of good role models and constructive things to do, teens will follow the stronger influence, not necessarily the positive one.
When these stressful and traumatic things happen early in life, they’re called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Study after study have linked having more ACEs to a variety of worse outcomes in a person’s life, including illness, substance abuse, behavioral problems, criminality and even early death.
What are these adverse childhood experiences? They are: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a family member.
Among the inmates who participated in the Times-Union’s survey, the average number of ACEs was more than 5; and 18 of the 25 men and women had four or more.
Many of those inmates contacted by the Times-Union expressed doubts that they had anything worthwhile to say, because, they asked, aren’t their stories all alike? Weren’t their experiences typical? How would that actually help anyone? No one had wanted to understand them before, some said.
“All the other prisoners you are writing to may have the same story as I do,” wrote Keith Shawn Hanks. He’s serving a life sentence for a murder committed at age 17, back in 1992. “So, do you really want to do a story on me?”
To them, their highly abnormal experiences were normal.
“We should be heartbroken,” said Carly Dierkhising, an assistant professor in the school of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles. “It is profoundly sad, and it also says a lot about our society and how we treat our youth.”
Jason Cooper put it another way.
“In the community of Jacksonville, kids (are) growing up thinking it’s all about street credibility, and (that) silly image along with gun play are mandatory in that life,” wrote Cooper, who was 17 when he shot and killed Wilson Sakudya in an Arlington apartment in 2007.
“If nothing happens to grab hold of that mindset, what you see now will always continue to be the same.”
This is a condensed version of a story written as part a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, in conjunction with the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Tessa Duvall, a staff writer for The Florida Times-Union, also served as a 2018 John Jay/Tow Justice Reporting Fellow. The full series can be read here: http://gatehousenews.com/whenkidskill/home/site/jacksonville.com
Almost all the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial incarceration, but in St. Louis County, a program that allows more pretrial defendants to be released under supervision has bucked the trend. It’s been a life-changer for Renita Syas.
It’s been five years since Renita Syas was booked into the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth, Minn.
She spent three weeks and a day in custody — a stay that doesn’t exactly stand out in the daily churn of the county lock-up — but it was enough for the Duluth woman to decide she was never coming back.
“I just got really sick of it,” said Syas. “I didn’t want to go spend another 22 days in jail. That was scary enough for me. I knew I didn’t want to live my life like that any more.”
Today, Syas is a success story for local officials who are seeking to find alternatives that offer rehabilitation rather than incarceration for many offenders.
As St. Louis County continues to grapple with a jail-crowding crisis that is among the worst in the state, attention has shifted toward programming that addresses the needs of those who land in the criminal justice system.
Inside the St. Louis County Jail. Inmates’ faces have been blurred as requested by the jail. Bob King / Duluth News Tribune
Syas’ journey to jail is one that police, attorneys, judges and probation officers say they see in criminal defendants on a daily basis.
Born in the Twin Cities and mostly raised in Chicago, she was a teenager when she first moved to Duluth with her mother in the late 1990s. Syas, 36, said she had been abused by a family member from a young age, but for years refused to talk about it, and the trauma went unaddressed well into adulthood.
In 2013, Syas found herself in what she now describes as a “tornado.”
Her partner at the time went to jail, and Syas said she found herself feeling alone and helpless. Mental illness coupled with chemical dependency overwhelmed her; she was soon arrested and faced multiple felony charges, including assault and robbery.
The jail stay, Syas said, was reality telling her to wake up. She nearly lost her apartment while in custody. After pleading guilty to the assault charge, her saving grace was the opportunity she was offered on pretrial release.
“I pleaded out and I was just kind of waiting for that sentencing date,” she said. “I got pretrial release kind of at the last minute, so that’s how I was able to come home.”
The release from jail allowed Syas to begin putting the pieces back together in her life.
She ultimately had an 81-month prison sentence stayed for five years of supervised probation.
Probation was not a cakewalk, however. Syas went to treatment and was subject to electronic monitoring and random drug and alcohol testing.
She had to make frequent appearances in the South St. Louis County Mental Health Court program. She was required to complete the Duluth Bethel Female Offender Program.
“I was really going through some mental health issues and trying to deal with my housing situation,” she said. “I remember just being afraid of coming out of jail, and asking, ‘Can I really do this? This is so much.’
“It was a real struggle, but first I had to get my health in line and then work on completing all the things I had to complete. The mental health court really helped me change my life. The Bethel program, too.”
Expansion in Probation Services
In recent years, an expansion in probation services has allowed more defendants to get out of jail on supervised release while their cases are pending. And a reassessment of post-conviction probation violations is seeking to allow offenders an alternative to a repeat trip to jail.
“The real measure is probably not the current jail population, but how many lives can find a successful pathway because we had contact with them,” said Dan Lew, the region’s chief public defender.
“That’s how we’ve got to measure our outcomes. Not our jail population, and certainly not how long we can incarcerate folks. How many folks are living better?”
On any given day, about 80 percent of the inmates at the St. Louis County Jail are in pretrial custody.
Yet to be convicted of a crime, how long they remain in jail is largely dependent on the progress of their case through a court system that is seeing increasingly crowded dockets as case filings continue to climb.
“Cases used to move much quicker,” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who has 40 years of experience in the local criminal justice system. “Now we’ve got people who are on pretrial sitting in jail for far too long.”
The St. Louis County Jail has trended at or above national percentages for pretrial incarceration.
A February report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 65 percent of inmates in county and city jails across the country were in the pretrial phase in 2016.
“Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial incarceration,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Maryland-based Pretrial Justice Institute.
Rubin said some judges are better than others at moving cases along, but he added the concept of a speedy trial now seems like a relic of a different era.
Advances in technology are leading to far more evidence that must be processed and reviewed by both law enforcement and attorneys. Gone are the days when a criminal case largely relied on a handful of typewritten police reports.
Today, there is DNA and advanced drug tests — and a shortage of the chemists at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab who are qualified to analyze them. There are body cameras videos that must be reviewed by the prosecution and defense attorneys. A forensic examination of cellphone or computer data can add hundreds of pages to a case file.
An inmate looks through available reading materials at the St. Louis County Jail. Photo by Bob King/Duluth News Tribune
Those are all great tools for the justice system but a significant burden in keeping cases moving forward, according to Lew.
“A typical case now, it’s thousands of pages of discovery,” he said. “We’re talking terabytes of discovery, which can only be accessed when you plug in a huge external hard drive and play 80 body cams.
“Just think of that, 80 body cams. This is just to open the file and read it for the first time. Leaving aside the time it takes to talk about DNA and forensic science, which is terribly time consuming — and our clients need that time.”
State law prescribes that 90 percent of criminal cases should be completed within three months, 97 percent should be done in six months, and 99 percent should be over within one year.
Minor criminal cases that typically wouldn’t result in any significant jail time — a first-time drunken driving offense or a fifth-degree assault, for instance — are generally meeting those marks. But the more serious cases that could result in a lengthy jail stay are more problematic.
In 2017, nearly 10 percent of “major criminal” cases — generally felonies and gross misdemeanors — went beyond a year in St. Louis County. That number has averaged about 8.5 percent since 2013, roughly equal with the statewide average over that time.
“The state has a hard time with the major criminal cases,” said Marieta Johnson, the 6th District court administrator. “That would be one case type where we’re all the same.”
With most inmates awaiting their next court date, a study from former Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Ken Schoen found that about 300 people who were locked up in the St. Louis County Jail in 2012 could have been safely released into the community with certain conditions.
“These were predominantly offenders who were there on higher-risk offenses or had prior offenses,” said Wally Kostich, chief probation officer for the five-county Arrowhead Regional Corrections (ARC). “Maybe some of them had been on probation before and violated the terms.”
Schoen’s analysis provided the spark for a new initiative: intensive pretrial release.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman. Photo by Bob King/Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman in 2013 offered to reallocate some money from his jail budget to the probation agency, allowing ARC to add two probation officers in Duluth and two on the Iron Range strictly assigned to defendants who could be released into the community with a higher level of supervision.
Kostich said the program offers a level of attention that is similar to what an offender would receive after leaving prison on supervised release, or parole.
“You see very little of these IPT agents in the office,” he said. “They’re more on the streets seeing people in the community, verifying work status, making sure they’re going to their treatment programs.
“There’s drug testing involved. … These are people that normally would be sitting in custody had it not been for the ability to add these positions and see people out in the community.”
The program has a capacity of 50-60 clients each in Duluth and on the Range. With each day of incarceration for a single inmate costing St. Louis County taxpayers about $131, that adds up.
An Arrowhead Regional Corrections analysis found potential savings of $10.6 million through 2016, after 2 ½ years of operation for the program.
“As a judge, it’s a great alternative, frankly, because typically the person has failed on regular pretrial release,” said 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski. “I tend to think that many, if not most, of the people at the jail have either a chemical dependency or alcohol issue.
“If we just let them out of jail without addressing that, we’re just going to create this revolving door where they’re going to get back out in community and go back to old behaviors, and not get treated for the very thing that’s brought them to the jail.”
The success of the intensive pretrial release program prompted Kostich and partnering agencies to take a look at a similar initiative on the back end of criminal cases.
It was apparent that most post-conviction inmates were in custody for probation violations — often technical infractions, such as missing an appointment, failing to check in with their probation officer or failing a drug test.
Rather than filing a formal violation report with the court and asking the judge to issue a warrant, ARC developed an alternative sanctions program that can be utilized in many instances.
A Contract With Conditions
The program offers the client an opportunity to sign a contract with some new conditions, such as additional days of community service, an alcohol assessment, counseling or cognitive skills programming, depending on the offense. If they agree, as most do, the contract goes to the sentencing judge for approval.
“It’s a way to address violations in lieu of a defendant having to appear in front of the court,” Kostich said.
“By lessening those appearances, we can hopefully give the court a chance to dispose of more high-priority cases in a quicker fashion.”
Like intensive pretrial release, the program was initially started with funds from the Sheriff’s Office. It now operates under ARC’s regular budget, with two full-time agents handling the program.
In any phase of supervision, Kostich said it’s important to tailor conditions to hone in on the needs of the individual. He said most clients will get a standard, comprehensive assessment to determine the appropriate level of supervision and programming.
“Sometimes the more conditions imposed upon an individual the more difficult it is for that individual to be able to maintain a crime-free lifestyle,” he said. “It’s just not a helter skelter that we’re just throwing up a bunch of conditions because I’m a true believer in the more we throw out there, the more difficult it is to succeed.”
In just five years, Syas has made a 180-degree turn in her life. Soon after graduating from mental health court and completing the Bethel program, she stopped by the CHUM emergency shelter in downtown Duluth to pick up an application.
She said it took near-daily calls, but she finally convinced the organization to give her a job. Not long after, she was offered another employment opportunity at Life House, the youth homeless outreach agency, where she now works full time as the activities coordinator.
Syas knows her line of work well. She said she benefitted from the services of both CHUM and Life House earlier in life.
“My life is not perfect by a long shot but I’ve bought a house, I’ve had a kid, I now have a vehicle — all these things that I’ve wanted,” she said.
“I can’t complain.”
Syas recalled initially having a dismissive attitude toward the court and the people trying to help her. But the trip to jail, and the resulting opportunities to get treatment and resources, changed that.
Today, Syas makes visits to the mental health court and crisis-intervention training sessions hosted by the Duluth Police Department, volunteering to share her first-person account of going to jail and navigating the criminal justice system.
“I’ve lived it, I’ve experienced it, and it was not too long ago,” Syas said.
“I share that testimonial every day of my life now in the job I work in.”
Tom Olsen, a staff writer for the Duluth News Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of the second and final installment of a series on jail incarceration written as part of his Fellowship Project. The complete version and other articles in the series can be accessed here.
At least 31 states now have rules preventing the automatic shackling of juveniles when they are brought to court. But one rural county in Utah hasn’t got the message.
Inside the pale stone historic courthouse in Manti, Utah, a rural town of 3,500 about two hours south of Salt Lake City, youths coming to court from juvenile detention centers sit in the jury room with their hands bound to a belly chain that rests on their hips, a bailiff watching over them as they wait for their cases to be called.
The chains often stay on when they go into the sole courtroom for their hearing.
And, at times, authorities shackle youths to the floor, cuffing their ankles to a steel plate in the jury room. This happens when a judge orders a juvenile taken into custody; the youth sits chained to the floor until a sheriff’s deputy comes to the courthouse to take him or her to a detention center.
Court officials in Manti say that because the outdated courthouse has no holding cell, juveniles ordered into custody are shackled while waiting to be transported to a detention center. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/ The Salt Lake Tribune
That conflicts with practice in many states, where rules governing the shackling of minors ensure that it is used only when justified for security reasons. Those rules in fact are supposed to operate in Utah as well.
Under a 2015 amendment to Utah’s juvenile-offender laws, shackles for minors were restricted only to those judged a flight risk or who might harm others. A subsequent rule enacted by the Utah Judicial Council, allowed a judge to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a youth should be shackled to be restrained in court.
Yet that judicial rule has an exception for “exigent circumstances.” And in Manti, court officials say the outdated Sanpete County Courthouse presents security issues that require them to routinely shackle youths.
But there’s a price to be paid.
Treating even those who commit minor offenses as hardened criminals not only produces long-term trauma but creates a stigma that is hard to overcome for youths whose unstable behavior has already brought them in contact with the law, say youth advocates.
“There is something fundamentally, potentially damaging, to take a person [who has] been injured psychologically, emotionally, physically and further restrain them,” said Shawn Marsh, director of judicial studies at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Marsh was part of a national group that pushed to end indiscriminate shackling nationwide. The social psychology professor said research has shown that few youths are legitimate flight risks who need to be restrained.
Utah legislators appear to agree.
“In my view, the evidence was compelling that shackling a youth in court was unnecessary and only had negative psychological effects of shaming and embarrassment,” Former State Sen. Aaron Osmond, a Republican who sponsored the 2015 bill to change the rules about shackling, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Before the 2015 amendment, any youth who was staying in a detention center, regardless of the severity of his or her alleged crime, came to court handcuffed.
As a result, in most Utah courtrooms today, youths wear no restraints unless the juvenile court judge finds they pose a risk to public safety or a danger to themselves.
Nevertheless, concerns about the impact of shackles on vulnerable youth appear to be trumped by the lack of security at the 83-year-old courthouse, an “exigent circumstance” that court officials say won’t be remedied unless a new facility is built.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Wendell Roberts, the trial court executive for the 6th Judicial District.
In Manti, there’s no holding cell in the courthouse to secure defendants before and after hearings.
The security problems at the 83-year-old Manti courthouse is one reason young people in the county have to be shackled, say local officials. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune
This means adult defendants sit shackled in a jury box in the single courtroom and listen to one another’s cases as they wait for their own to be called. But because juvenile cases are typically not public, young defendants are kept in chains in the jury room while they wait.
Youths frequently continue to wear handcuffs into the courtroom for their hearing, according to Sanpete County Sheriff’s Lt. Brad Bown, who works in the courthouse.
The metal floor ring welded to a heavy steel plate in the jury room was originally made to be used in the courtroom during a murder trial for an adult. Now, it’s used to hold juveniles for short periods of time.
Bown said this generally only happens once every month or so, when a youth is unexpectedly taken into custody and an additional bailiff isn’t available to watch him or her. He couldn’t recall anyone being shackled to the floor in the past six months.
Marsh of the University of Nevada, said one of the most serious effects of shackling youth, many of whom already are suffering trauma, is the loss of autonomy.
“Since [shackles are] being forced upon you, you’ve lost control,” he said. “You’re not given an opportunity to have a choice.”
He said the best way to balance security issues with concerns about damaging young people is to have a judge decide shackling on a case-by-case basis — much like what happens in courtrooms throughout the rest of Utah. Thirty-one other states have similar rules preventing automatic shackling, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.
Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children, said members of her organization first took note of the metal ring used to shackle youths to the floor in Manti during site visits. They were researching youth access to public defenders, attorneys paid by counties to represent indigent defendants.
“The image [shackling] gives of those kids, and just how it paints them in a courtroom or even in their own community — it’s just super concerning,” she said.
Thomas said Voices for Utah Children found that youths’ experiences in Utah’s juvenile justice system can vary greatly, based on which county they live in — and not just when it comes to whether they will be handcuffed in court. She said the group found frequent discrepancies in whether a youth offender was given an attorney.
“Ideally, you would have kids appointed an attorney upfront,” she said. “When you get further and further away from major population centers, that just gets really hard to implement.”
Not everyone thinks shackling is by definition abusive, however.
“I haven’t noticed anything that jumps out at me as abusive or excessive,” David Angerhofer, who works as a public defender in Sanpete County, he said in a recent interview.
But he admits that not having a holding cell or a conference room in a secure area of the courthouse does create challenges for a defense attorney. If he needs to talk to a young client before a hearing, his only option is to sit side by side in a set of mismatched chairs with his client, just outside the jury room in a secure hallway.
Roberts, the trial court executive, said the only option for adult defendants who need to talk to their attorney — conversations that are supposed to be private — is to either put them in the jury room or use chairs in the hallways.
“That’s why we’re trying to get a new courthouse,” he said.
One problem noted by observers is that the judge and inmates use the same building entrance and exit, Roberts said. There have been times, he added, when a defendant has left the courtroom and followed a judge to his car to argue over a ruling.
In recent years, court officials have asked legislators to provide funds for a new courthouse, but the project has been ranked too far down on the priority list to get state funding.
Court officials already have purchased land to build on, a 2.34-acre plot where a boarded-up, dilapidated construction building and three narrow World War II-era parachute production buildings now stand.
They are trying again this year, requesting more than $19 million in state funds to erect a new building that will help solve their most pressing safety concerns.
The ultimate decision rests with Utah lawmakers, who will dole out funding when the legislative session starts in January.
Until then, youths coming to the outdated courthouse in Manti will be treated differently than other young people in the state, wearing chains when normally they would not.
Jessica Miller, a staff writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story written as part of her Fellowship project. The full version can be accessed here. Readers’ comments are welcome.
With growing numbers of women incarcerated around the country, some local authorities are developing innovative programs to help ensure they never return once they’re released. Floyd County in southern Indiana opened a jail-based counseling unit this year that appears to hold promise.
Is there a better way to address the growing numbers of women who find themselves in jail?
One southern Indiana county has developed a program aimed at helping women—including those who have recidivated—gain the tools, skills and confidence to make their current stay behind bars the last one.
The program is the brainchild of Floyd County Sheriff Lt. Brett O’Loughlin and Michelle Cochran, a mental health worker contracted by the jail.
At the beginning of this year, the jail opened a separate block with room for 16 inmates who are committed to focusing on themselves, addressing their addiction issues, and supporting one another in their growth.
And some of the women inmates say it has already put them in the right direction.
“It teaches you how to change your thinking, which is where we all mess up,” said Heather Goff, who’s been in the Floyd County jail for almost a year and a half, and in the program for eight months.
“I was sober for nine years. Since I’ve been locked up, I’ve had time to reflect on where I went wrong and recognize how not to do it again.”
According to Cochran, the recent increase in the number of women in Floyd County jail — largely due to drug issues or drug-related crimes — makes it more important than ever to develop and maintain meaningful programming for them.
“So we started putting it together building a curriculum [with] evidence-based practice,” Cochran said.
The jail has recently been awarded a grant to expand the program to men; she said they started with the women because “that population seemed to explode in a very short amount of time.”
The women in the “program dorm” are given more freedoms and responsibility than those in the general block, and have access to more programming — like specialized classes and yoga.
Coordinators work with them to help hone in on the personal life issues that led to their brush with the law, and to help cut recidivism.
According to Lt. O’Loughlin, programs in other jails around the country are often limited to basics: 12-step program meetings or faith-based programs. While those can be useful, he said, they can lack the more personal focus the new Floyd County program offers.
“Every facility has some type of program, but it ends up being they try to cram everybody into that one-size-fits all,” he said. “They’re just spinning their wheels and the same people keep coming back.
“[This program is] not going to be a one-size-fits all. We’re going to throw everything we can at it and see what sticks.”
Each week, the women draw lots to see which jobs they’ll have for the week — they could serve as a mediator to help sort out interpersonal issues among the inmates, or they could facilitate weekly programming, enforce chores getting done or keep track of records within the program.
“This program means a lot to me because this is the first time that I’m addressing that I have a problem and I am an addict,” Mercedes Hall said. “And that means a lot to … my family. This is the first time in my life I’ve actually had structure and consistency.”
In Floyd County, the average daily female population has nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017 to 59 from 35, a rise that local law enforcement authorities attribute to the drug crisis that’s shaken Southern Indiana in the past several years.
The growth of the male inmate population has been more steady during that time in Floyd County.
Nearby Clark County law enforcement officials have seen similar growth, rising to an average daily female population of 131 in 2017, up from 56 in 2007.
Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel says the growth in numbers comes with challenges to spacing and increased health costs associated with women. On a recent day in Clark County, there were eight pregnant women in jail.
In 2016, Clark County initiated three new programs targeted specifically to address the needs of the growing female population.
A 12-week writing workshop, taught by local freelance journalist Amanda Beam, is designed to help women express themselves through written words. There is a separate group for women who are victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse, to help pave the way for them to become empowered survivors.
There’s also a pregnancy class for women who are, or believe they may be, pregnant.
“The more tools you can give an inmate, especially a female inmate, hopefully [means] they won’t return to jail and that’s what’s best for the family,” Noel said.
Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop says a new jail program started this year specifically for women gives them the chance to break through the old thought patterns and habits, to help prevent them from returning to jail. Photo by Aprile Rickert, News and Tribune .
In Floyd County, nearly all of the women in the program said they have been incarcerated multiple times, and most are currently in for drug-related charges.
“Even if their charge isn’t a drug charge, it’s usually drug-related,” program member Goff said. “Whatever they’ve done, it was to get drugs.”
Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said the program can change the course of a woman’s life — to keep her from falling into the old ways before jail.
Often, they end up in jail again soon because “they go back to the same environment they had,” Loop said. “The same friends, because they don’t know anything else.”
Cassidy Miller’s story lines up with this.
Miller, who has been in jail multiple times, admitted she intentionally courted arrest because she knew she needed a change from the life she was living on the outside.
“I was doing everything right on the outside [but] everything was still screwing up,” she said. “I was very, very tired, and I knew I wanted something different.
“We’re all just tired of that life. We want something different and this is the first step to that.”
While some jail opportunities, like receiving a GED or other certifications can mean credit off of their sentence, this is not the case with the new Floyd County program.
Cochran, the mental health worker, said this helps ensure that everyone in the program is there because they want to be, and because they’re committed to doing the work.
Because the women are housed in a separate dorm, they’re not around the negative influences of others in jail who aren’t ready or don’t wish to try to change, Cochran said.
The program effectively begins as soon as the women enter the dedicated block.
“[We ask] ‘what are your goals, what are you going to do different, where are you going to be that’s safe when you leave here,'” she said.
Program participant Miller said living in the dorm creates a sense of solidarity and mutual concern among the inmates.
“In here, we call each other on our B.S.,” she said. “Or if we’re thinking something wrong or we’re down on ourselves, we check ourselves and each other because we care enough to see everybody do well.”
Another inmate, Joanie Watson, recently received a certificate for completing a class that she helped show her that progress was possible.
“It’s a confidence boost, even doing your homework is a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “Something little you accomplished and something bigger and it just builds up.”
But the hardest challenge may come when the inmates are released.
The county Sheriff’s Department and staff say they are working to increase partnerships with community organizations who will be available for continued post-incarceration health and addiction care.
“That’s how we’re going to prevent recidivism,” Cochran said.
“That’s how we’re going to keep them clean, keep them sober and keep them medicated.”
Aprile Rickert, a crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in the News and Tribune as part of her Fellowship project. Follow Aprile on Twitter: @Aperoll27. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Juveniles under the age of 17 will no longer be prosecuted as adults under a state law that went into effect Oct. 1. But since the law isn’t retroactive, thousands of young people arrested earlier are caught in the old system—with potentially devastating consequences, advocates say.
It started with a cell phone.
Last summer, Jay (not her real name), a 16-year-old living in upstate New York, was convinced a woman had taken her mother’s phone, police say, and went to the woman’s house with three friends to retrieve it. They broke in, according to police, and took some other things—including jewelry and makeup—while they were there.
When the woman threatened to call the police, Jay tried to return the items, the police said, but she didn’t return all of them. The woman notified the police and Jay was arrested.
If the incident had happened today, Jay’s case most likely would have been resolved in family court, without criminal penalties. But since it allegedly happened last summer, she was charged as an adult in criminal court with burglary in the second degree, a violent felony that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
That’s because the state changed the way it treats 16-year-olds in the criminal justice system, starting on Oct. 1. Recognizing that teenagers like Jay are prone to impulsive behavior because their brains are still developing, New York lawmakers passed the Raise the Age law in 2017, shifting the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.
(For 17-year-olds, the law will change Oct. 1, 2019.)
Around 21,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in New York last year. Before Raise the Age, New York and North Carolina were the only two states where those 16- and 17-year-olds were automatically prosecuted as adults in criminal court.
Under the new law, the vast majority of their cases will now be diverted to family court, which is meant to emphasize more age-appropriate solutions like counseling and community services over criminal punishment. Only the most serious cases will stay in a new youth part in criminal court.
But for 16-year-olds like Jay, whose cases were pending when Raise the Age went into effect, the old system is still in place. And research shows that system can do permanent damage to their well-being and derail their futures.
“There are kids similarly situated who are being treated totally differently,” said Jay’s attorney, Lauren Parnes. “They could have been arrested right afterward and these cases are now on two totally different tracks.”
For Parnes, the timing is particularly tragic in Jay’s case because this is her first arrest and she almost certainly would have benefited from having her case heard in family court rather than criminal court.
Jay’s mother is a drug user and frequently kicked Jay out of the house, Parnes said, leaving her homeless. Even when she was at home, the power and hot water were often shut off, Jay said, making her unable to shower for school. And Jay’s father lives more than 1,500 miles away in a different state.
Parnes declined to name the town where the alleged crime occurred or the prosecuting district attorney to protect her client’s identity.
In family court, she explained, a judge probably would have seen a girl in need rather than a criminal. The judge might have brought in the Department of Social Services, Parnes said, to help stabilize Jay’s housing and help her access things like food stamps and Medicaid.
“There’s all these sorts of needs that aren’t being addressed.”
Ramen and Mountain Dew
Jay’s situation has echoes across the state. In Schenectady, a 16-year-old was recently charged with third-degree robbery for allegedly stealing a pair of Jordan Pro Star sneakers and fourth-degree grand larceny in the theft of an Apple iPhone 7. Because the alleged robberies occurred in May rather than October, he now faces up to 11 years in prison.
In Plattsburgh, a 16-year-old boy was charged with third-degree burglary after breaking into his mother’s home last summer and stealing ramen and Mountain Dew. Thanks in part to prior arrests for crimes like petit larceny and unauthorized use of a vehicle, the teen’s attorney said, he was sentenced to six months in jail with five years probation.
The attorney, David Gervais, said he was especially disappointed that the judge would jail his client for stealing food.
“It’s not like he went in to steal medication or to steal cash,” Gervais said. “He didn’t touch anything else. He just literally went in to get food.”
The teen needs rehab, not jail time, Gervais said. Neither the judge nor Andrew Wylie, Clinton County’s district attorney, responded to requests for comment.
Of course, many judges in adult court choose to sentence kids to probation rather than lock them up. Another 16-year-old, in the town of Attica, was arrested in September and charged with second-degree burglary for allegedly stealing an Xbox One from someone’s home.
Like Jay, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. But Wyoming County District Attorney Donald O’Geen said that’s unlikely to happen.
“It will most likely end with the defendant receiving a youthful offender adjudication (which means the criminal record will be sealed) and some term of probation,” O’Geen wrote in an email.
O’Geen added that the incident shouldn’t be downplayed.
“Whether the burglary was committed by a 16-year-old or a 61-year-old, it is still a violent crime and there is still a victim who now lives with the fact that someone has violated the sanctity of their home,” he wrote.
“Family Court is not the place to send cases for solutions as they have no teeth.”
But in criminal court, even probation often carries major risks for young offenders. In the New York City borough of The Bronx, Derek (not his real name), a 16-year-old who allegedly tossed away a gun during a police pursuit in June, was charged as an adult with gun possession. The judge offered him five years’ probation, but his attorney is worried that a mistake like smoking marijuana or missing too much school could land him in prison.
A family court judge might have placed him in a therapeutic group home for some period of time, or ordered him to attend outpatient programs to address substance use or mental health issues, notes Gregg Stankewicz, director of the Adolescent Defense Project at the Bronx Defenders.
And that’s a smarter approach than criminal punishment, he said.
The young people his team encounters live in over-policed communities, Stankewicz explained, and the vast majority grow out of the behavior that results in arrests.
“That’s why it’s so important that we don’t permanently set back these young people, either with a record or with the physical and mental harm that can come from incarceration,” he said.
That approach benefits public safety as well, he said. Several studies have found that young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system are more likely to reoffend than those treated as juveniles.
“For the health of the community and the child,” Stankewicz said, “we need a more rehabilitative system that’s focused on repair.”
While many public defenders want Raise the Age to go further, some prosecutors question whether it’s needed at all. The District Attorneys Association of New York referred a request for comment for this story to Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan, a member of its executive board.
Jordan said that even before the law, less than 5 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds arrested ended up with permanent records.
Prosecutors have long offered young people access to diversion programs, he said, and used incarceration only as a last resort.
“We’ve always looked at a 16-year-old as a 16-year-old,” Jordan told The Appeal. “Sometimes their actions are such that there’s a different consequence, but we never lose sight of the fact that they’re a 16-year-old.”
Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project, pushed for the law, yet acknowledges that some judges and prosecutors in the adult system assess teens’ cases fairly.
But she said adult court lacks the breadth of services and legal options available in family court.
“It’s just not possible to fairly adjudicate kids in a system that was created for adults,” she said.
There are already signs that some district attorneys will resist the new law. Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the Bronx DA’s office, said cases are assessed “on an individual basis.”
But even now, the office would argue to keep cases involving 16-year-olds with guns in criminal court.
“Since the Raise the Age law went into effect if [a] 16-year-old is charged in a gun case, we would ask to keep that case under ‘extraordinary circumstances,’” she said, alluding to a provision in the law that prevents some cases from being transferred from criminal to family court.
What Constitutes ‘Extraordinary’ Circumstances?
Stankewicz of the Bronx Defenders finds it troubling that the DA is looking to exclude certain groups of teenagers from the law’s protections. “If the District Attorney’s office believes every gun possession case is ‘extraordinary,’ they misunderstand the nature of Raise the Age,” he wrote in an email.
The law states that absent “extraordinary circumstances,” a gun possession case would stay in criminal court only when a firearm is displayed. “A blanket position that every firearm possession amounts to ‘extraordinary circumstances’ would be an attempt to get around the intent of Raise the Age,” he wrote, “and to continue using the adult criminal justice system against children.”
As prosecutors and public defenders debate the new law, some attorneys say the kids who just missed it should be part of the conversation.
“The reason they implemented this legislation existed when my client allegedly committed this crime,” said Parnes, Jay’s lawyer, who said she thinks the law should have covered 16-year-olds whose cases were still pending when it went into effect.
Brian Degnan, who represented the teen who allegedly stole the Xbox, agrees. He said he tried to argue that point in court, but the judge in the case, Michael Mohun, said his hands were tied by the law. (Through a spokesperson, Mohun said he could not comment on the case.)
But Degnan doesn’t blame the judge for his client’s misfortune.
“He’s getting lost in the legislative shuffle,” Degnan said. “I think it was very short-sighted on the part of the legislature.”
The kids who were left behind have reached the attention of the state legislators who shepherded Raise the Age to passage, according to Cathy Peake, chief of staff for Assembly Member Joe Lentol, who was a lead negotiator on the law. Lentol’s office has heard concerns about 16- and 17-year-olds still being charged as adults.
Emboldened by Democrats gaining control of both houses of the state legislature, Peake said the office is starting to hold meetings to discuss Raise the Age fixes, such as requiring courts to automatically seal the cases of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested or convicted before the law took effect.
“It’s not uncommon that we fight to get a good law and then we come back to make it even better,” she said.
For now, however, Jay is on edge. She is living out of state with her aunt and uncle and trying to get her GED. “I’m doing so good out here,” she said.
But with her case still open, the threat of incarceration is hanging over her head.
“Doing jail time really scares me,” she said.
If she were given a chance to take her case to family court instead, “maybe they would have seen that I really made a mistake,” she said, “and that I’m trying to change.”
Cassi Feldman is a 2018 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this article, which also appeared today in The Appeal. Reader’s comments are welcome.