The topic of about 50,000 children under the age of 18 being incarcerated across the nation was front and center at symposium hosted at the USD School of Law last week.
On Thursday and Friday, the South Dakota Law Review and the USD School of Law presented a symposium to discuss issues associated with juveniles in the criminal justice system in the United States. The law school symposium is an annual event, and the topic each year is chosen by the editor for the South Dakota Law Review.
This year’s symposium was the idea of Law Review editor Ashley Brost, a third-year law student at USD.
Brost taught middle school before attending law school, and always had an interest in the rights of juveniles, which is why she chose the topic of juvenile justice.
“I think that juveniles have more vulnerabilities than adults do when they enter the system,” Brost said. “Their rights need to be upheld even though they are minors.”
Altogether, the symposium had 17 speakers, three of them being local and 14 of them being practitioners of juvenile law from across the country. The symposium addressed a variety of issues associated with juvenile justice, including interrogation and confessions, Native American Youth, sentencing, sex offender registry for youth and prison conditions for juveniles.
Nicole Pittman, founder of the Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice, spoke on Thursday about the harm of placing youth on the sex offender registry and the efforts being made to reform these laws. Pittman started her presentation by introducing the grandmother of a boy placed on the sex offender registry at age 14. Another boy, Pittman said, was placed on the registry at age eight.
The damage caused by being on the sex offender registry affects more than just the juveniles themselves.
“A child on the registry is a family on the registry and also a victim on the registry,” Pittman said. “My work that I do is not just about telling people about putting kids on registries. It’s about getting everyone to understand that these are our kids. These are all of our kids.”
Pittman discussed how children placed on the sex offender registry experience psychological impacts, increased exposure to violence and it has an impact on their families. They also face problems when it comes to housing, barriers on education and employment and economic issues.
Pittman showed statistics that said 900,000 people are on registries in America, and there are zero studies in the past two decades showing that youth registration is effective. She also showed that the rate of recidivism, or a person’s relapse in criminal behavior, among youth that commit sexual harm is under three percent.
Many times, young people facing sexual charges never even have the opportunity to see their case in court.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases that were sex offenses were handled as pleas. Most kids did not talk to their attorneys. Most attorneys did not talk to their kids that were accused of sexual offenses,” Pittman said.
Angel Runnings, a lawyer with the Minnehaha County Public Defender Office, also spoke on Thursday about the age of consent and the criminal charges juveniles are facing. Runnings said “the registry ruins everything” for those that don’t re-offend, as placement on the registry will stay with that person forever.
“These are our kids, too. This is what’s happening every day. Children are being charged,” Runnings said. “They are often low-functioning, they are often victims themselves. Virtually 100 percent of the time, this is curiosity and exploratory. They are acting out on things that they’ve heard or saw. It’s not the passion of lust that adults have. Often it’s boyfriends and girlfriends. Very often the children are actually below the legal age of consent themselves, which is 16 in South Dakota. There is rarely injury or threats involved.”
Amy Fettig, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke on Friday about juvenile prison conditions, solitary confinement and vulnerability to violence while incarcerated.
“The reason that we at the ACLU focus on solitary confinement, quite frankly, is that it is a matter of life and death,” Fettig said.
Students and professors from USD attended the symposium, along with others. Many of the speakers stayed to listen to the other speakers and there were even people that came from other states just as an audience member.
Addie Rolnick, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, spoke about the problems faced by Native American youth who find themselves in the justice system.
In her presentation, Rolnick said the situation of juvenile justice within Native American communities is fraught with problems and contention, though the basic problems are broadly agreed upon.
“The system that native youth find themselves in is indeed a tangled web. The current system, more than just being tangled, is basically exactly backward from what it should be,” Rolnick said. “Native youth are vulnerable and traumatized, incarceration is not effective as a deterrent to the behavior, the juvenile justice system in this country re-traumatizes the youth that are already traumatized, and incarceration is often the wrong alternative, yet is often the rule, rather than the exception.”
Native American youth, Rolnick said, suffer from “high rates of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of exposure to violence and trauma, high rates of poverty, high rates of poor educational obtainment and poor educational outcomes, poor health care, lack of access to healthy food,” all of which are major factors that predispose young people to criminal activities.
As a group, Rolnick said Native American youth are vastly over-incarcerated, often for non-violent, petty offenses that white youth typically do not go to jail for. Within jail, Native American youth often face physical and sexual abuse, along with very limited access to medical assistance or education.
One reason the problems associated with the incarceration of Native American youth are so difficult to address, Rolnick said, is that criminal justice in general within Native American communities is a “jurisdictional maze,” where it can be difficult to tell whether the responsibility falls under tribal jurisdiction, federal jurisdiction or state jurisdiction.
Rolnick stuck around for the later presentations on Friday as well. Overall, she had a positive impression of the symposium.
“I thought it (the symposium) was fantastic,” Rolnick said. “I think all of the speakers here were talking about things that are the right direction that the system needs to move.”
Dennis Marks, a lawyer from Nebraska, decided to come to the symposium after seeing the schedule of topics being discussed and the speakers.
“It (the symposium) was incredible,” Marks said. “They did a terrific job putting together not just a wonderful agenda, but wonderful speakers as well.”
Marks said he has been representing juveniles for the last 20 years, so he feels very strongly about the issues surrounding juvenile justice.
At the end of everything, Brost said the she felt the symposium went well.
“The Law Review staff worked really well together to make sure everything was organized and the law school administration and faculty really supported us to ensure success,” Brost said. “I thought the speakers were amazing and delivered powerful messages about how to protect the children in the justice system.”