Kennedy on the Prison Rape Elimination Act
"I would like to thank Judge Walton and the Commissioners for inviting me to participate in this hearing. I'm honored to have the opportunity to speak on such an important topic. The stories you've heard from these courageous young people underscore the urgent need to deal with the ongoing problems of juvenile prisoner abuse.
With the Prison Rape Elimination Act, Congress made a bipartisan commitment to do more to deal with the long-ignored epidemic of rape and sexual abuse in the nation's prisons. As those here today know well, with over two million prisoners now incarcerated nationwide, one in ten will be a victim of rape. Given these sobering numbers - and a greater push in Congress to treat juveniles as adults - we need a clear strategy to confront the problems before us and to give hope to those already in the system.
Congress needs input from the Commission on next steps. We know we have a responsibility to protect the incarcerated from such vile and predatory acts. The nearly 100,000 children who make up the juvenile prison population are possibly the most vulnerable and defenseless group in our criminal justice system, and too often, we fail to protect them. As two survivors testified so courageously this morning, juvenile facilities are regularly the site of shocking physical and mental abuse.
In addition to issues surrounding juvenile facilities, the plight of child inmates in adult prisons is an even more serious concern. Juveniles housed with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than those in juvenile facilities. An even more appalling statistic is that the suicide rate of child inmates in adult prisons is over seven times higher than in juvenile facilities.
In 34 states, juveniles who have been tried and convicted in criminal court must be tried as adults for all subsequent offenses. The number of youth under 18 in adult jails has nearly tripled in the last fifteen years. Over 7,000 child prisoners now live daily alongside adult criminals.
Despite all the testimony that you will hear today about the grave consequences of incarcerating juveniles with adults, there's been alarming escalation in the willingness of many of my colleagues in Congress to treat children as adults. Historically, judges have been given broad discretion to choose the best course in dealing with child offenders. This discretion helps ensure that arbitrary requirements do not prevent judges from finding the best solutions in individual cases; but unfortunately, many states have gradually reduced the power of judges to make these determinations.
At least 29 states have enacted statutes that exclude large categories of cases from the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. Now, some in Congress want to do the same. The House of Representatives has also passed a draconian bill on gangs that would dramatically reduce judges' discretion over cases still within their responsibility.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee - of which I am a member, Chairman Specter is now working on a companion gangs bill with Senators Hatch, Feinstein and Schumer. While we haven't had any hearings on the issue, it seems that there is a strong push to do something this year. The Senate bill would expand mandatory minimums for juvenile offenders, including mandatory life sentences. For some offenses, the Senate bill would even establish a presumption in favor of transferring a juvenile to adult court.
While the punishment must fit the crime, the current proposals fail to create comprehensive solutions to the problems of youth violence and sentencing facing our country today. While the Senate proposal takes a different approach than the House, we face a real challenge in trying to work out the differences between these very different bills.
The work of the Commission is important in understanding the enormous risks of such policy changes. At the same time, we are seeing a continued and disturbing - trend of under-funding and undercutting juvenile justice programs across the board. For this reason, the Commission should provide Congress with specific recommendations on how to best target resources.
Only a better understanding of the consequences of condemning a child to the adult penal system can adequately address these issues, and I commend the Commission for its leadership here, and I urge the Commissioners to continue to focus on this important aspect of the problem.
One further issue is also of particular concern to me. Our treatment of mentally ill child inmates remains grossly inadequate - as many of those here today know firsthand. Only half of juvenile facilities screen all inmates for mental health illness. One in ten don't screen at all. Over a third of these facilities provide no on-site mental health treatment.
Even when young people are able to obtain services, the treatment is often inadequate and the consequences can be severe. According to a report of the House Committee on Government Reform, scores of mentally ill youth are held in detention simply because no space is available in community mental health facilities.
Two-thirds of these facilities report that some of the young offenders have attacked others or attempted suicide. I urge the Commission to study carefully this serious problem of the incarceration of mentally ill youth, particularly where there is abuse, and include recommendations to Congress in its final report.
While Congress grapples with the issues surrounding youth violence and gangs, we cannot forget to include provisions to address serious concerns about youth with mental illness. Given the stakes, I'm prepared to reach across party lines to get something done. We did it before with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and I'm prepared to do so again.
With all the experts and those with direct experience here today, the Commission is moving in the right direction to provide thorough recommendations to Congress. Let me take a moment to respectfully suggest the things that we need:
One, we need an analysis of the best research available. With these factual findings, Congress will be in a better position to legislate.
In addition, we also need an assessment of the resources needed to implement strategies to address the problems discussed today. I hope that the Commission will continue to work with the panelists here today, including the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the National Partnership for Juvenile Service and the Center for Children's Law and Policy, to propose standards and best practices in the area of juvenile detention. We need guidance on how best to ensure that proper staff training and interventions take place - as well as clear recommendations on how to make conditions of confinement better and safer.
Finally, I hope that the Commission will recommend a system of checks and balances so that the federal government can do a better job of monitoring these facilities.
This hearing, and your forthcoming reports, will help to raise public awareness and improve the prospect of needed changes. In particular, I hope that you will highlight the important need to address the specific challenges relating to juveniles.
In addition, I am encouraged that the Commission will also focus on problems with abuse at immigration detention facilities. We can't go on like this, and we're counting on your guidance for the most effective resolution as soon as possible. Thank you very much."