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Our View: State must protect juvenile inmates

Published: Friday, June 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Locking a juvenile in prison should be a last resort in the criminal justice system and an action reserved for the worst offenders.

As a society, we still believe we have a responsibility to rehabilitate the life of a child who has made continuous bad decisions before they become an adult who makes even worse ones.

We treat most juveniles charged with crimes differently than we treat adults. We also house the worst offenders in separate places. These are obvious methods few reasonable people would dispute.

But what’s increasingly disturbing is the state’s inability to protect these juvenile prisoners from sexual assault and abuse while they are in the state’s custody. According to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study, Illinois juvenile prisoners are sexually victimized at a rate 35 percent greater than the national average.

Of 461 Illinois juvenile prisoners, more than 15 percent reported being sexually victimized, often by staff members. The attacks take place in various locations of these youth detention centers, from showers and sleeping areas to recreation areas and kitchens.

The numbers are alarming, as are anecdotes from child inmates who reported that staff members gave them drugs or alcohol before the incidents.

State officials need to review these reports and address this issue immediately. Such attacks are criminal behavior and the absolute antithesis of what juvenile justice institutions are designed to do.

Employees who have perpetrated such acts must be criminally investigated and appropriately prosecuted. A thorough investigation must be completed from the highest level of juvenile justice to the lowest level.

Budget cuts across the state always have an impact, but if the state can’t protect juvenile inmates from sexual assault, then they shouldn’t house juvenile offenders at all.

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