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New Government Report on Juvenile Detention: It’s About Leadership — Facility Staff Who Want to Keep Youth Safe Can Do So

  • June 29, 2016

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., June 29, 2016 — A new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report on sexual abuse in juvenile detention offers the strongest evidence to date that it’s entirely possible to keep youth safe from sexual violence, as long as facility leaders commit to doing so. The differences between safe and dangerous facilities are straightforward. In safe facilities, staff build trust among youth in their custody, create a climate of openness, and make sure that all youth understand their right to be safe and the absolute prohibition against staff sexual misconduct. Dangerous facilities lack these conditions, and thereby fail to uphold their core mission to ensure youth safety.

The groundbreaking report, titled Facility-level and Individual-level Correlates of Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities, 2012, draws on data BJS collected in its national surveys of youth in detention. It shows that by educating youth in custody on sexual abuse and by providing safe ways for them to report abuse — core provisions of the national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards — facility staff are able to reduce sexual violence dramatically.

“The new BJS findings are both encouraging and exasperating. They are encouraging because they confirm that sexual abuse is a problem that strong youth detention leaders can solve, if they want to, and exasperating because so many leaders continue to insist, against all evidence, that sexual violence is outside of their control,” said Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director.

While the BJS has published a series of landmark surveys on the prevalence of sexual abuse in detention, this new report is the first-ever national study of the effectiveness of prevention education aimed at ending this violence. The data were gathered by the BJS prior to the release of the PREA standards, in May 2012, but yesterday’s study analyzed youth facility practices with those standards firmly in mind. Its findings are decisive. One of the strongest indicators of a safe facility is the level of commitment among staff to teaching youth about facility policies on sexual abuse — a core tenet of the PREA standards. Notably, facilities in which staff educate youth on rules around this abuse within 24 hours of a detainee’s arrival have rates of staff sexual misconduct that are roughly five times lower than facilities where such education is never provided (1.8 versus 9.1 percent of youth reporting staff sexual misconduct).

Another key finding of the report is that having a climate of openness and trust is vital to keeping youth safe. In facilities where youth stated that they would feel too scared or ashamed to report sexual abuse, or were worried that they would not be believed, the overall levels of abuse were high (roughly 9 percent). In facilities where youth expressed trust in staff, the rates were low (1.7 percent).

Other findings from the report include:

  • Facilities that do not have adequate numbers of staff had high rates of sexual abuse, underscoring the importance of the PREA standards requirement on proper staffing levels.
  • The reported number of gang fights in a facility correlates strongly with reports of staff sexual misconduct, highlighting the link between sexual violence and overall facility disorder.
  • Youth who have a history of prior detention of six months or more face a greater risk of sexual abuse by staff at their current facility than kids with no such history.
  • LGBT youth in detention face far higher rates of sexual abuse than kids who identify as straight.

“This report should be a wake-up call for youth facility leaders who have not made PREA and sexual abuse prevention a top priority,” said Stannow. “The time for excuses is over; sexual abuse in detention is preventable.”



Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention