Letters

From the week of July 19, 2001

Kids on the Skids

The paper's not alright: The agency that Amy Silverman described on July 5 ("The Kids Are NOT Alright") doesn't look anything like the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

The ugly images that Ms. Silverman conjures up are not accurate. She describes trash-filled rooms smeared with body fluids. Yet your own photos show neatly kept rooms. Even her eyewitness accounts describe a "campus that is quiet and clean."

Furthermore, this Department provides full access to judges, court personnel and outside experts. They, too, visit the Department frequently. A number of different professional groups come in to monitor our programs.

In no way does this Department make any claim of perfection. There have been cases where staff acted inappropriately, and times when the Department had to implement corrective measures.

ADJC's belief is that it must work continuously to improve its performance. It will continue to be candid and open in assessing its actions and making adjustments.

Here's the reality that Ms. Silverman ignored. ADJC carefully tracks the youth who complete our programs. The data so far show that 74 to 79 percent of youth avoid reincarceration after one year. Nearly 60 percent demonstrated this success for three years. These are youth who, on average, were referred to the juvenile courts at least six times before being sent to ADJC.

Ms. Silverman castigates this Department by alleging that we are locking up youth for too long. Youth are not "sentenced" for a specified time, as occurs in the adult system. Juvenile courts typically require that youth complete a minimum length of stay with ADJC, and can be kept until their 18th birthday. If they convince a Superintendent's Review Board that they are ready to be released, they are. If not, they continue working until they are ready.

The Department rarely incarcerates youth until age 18. About eight of 10 are released within 60 days of their court-mandated minimum length of stay. On average, ADJC youth stay about 37.4 days past that minimum time.

She alleges that youth "routinely" spend "days or weeks, sometimes even months" in separation, which she erroneously equates to "solitary confinement." The average ADJC length of stay in separation is less than two days, or specifically, 34.4 hours, not weeks or months. Further, this average has dropped by about 40 percent since 1998, when a U.S. District Judge dismissed the Johnson v. Upchurch class-action lawsuit.

It helps Ms. Silverman's case to conjure up images of youth locked in darkened rooms, with no human contact, but separation is a carefully constructed program, managed by experienced, highly trained mental-health professionals, that is designed to intervene with youth who are acting inappropriately, and return them to regular programming as soon as possible.

The story also makes false claims of staff abuse. More than 940 youth went through ADJC secure facilities in 2000. More than 1,100 staff work for this agency. There were exactly five cases where inappropriate use of force by staff was documented that year by the Department's Internal Affairs investigator. One incident is unacceptable, and this Department takes aggressive action, up to and including dismissal and criminal charges, when abuse is substantiated.

On staffing ratios, the Department maintains the numbers established via the court agreement, in consultation with court-appointed monitors.

ADJC maintains one staff for every 12 youth in our housing units during the day. In the evening, we strive for 1-to-8. This excludes staff who are not trained to work directly with youth. Ms. Silverman lets unnamed staff speculate that the ratios include clerical staff. That is completely untrue.

She also alleges that staff are poorly trained, and only a "cursory criminal background check" is conducted. Staff must complete a training academy and experience on-the-job training before they are allowed to work as line staff, and Department policy mandates that every ADJC employee continue that training by completing in-service programs every year.

Furthermore, the Arizona Department of Public Safety conducts criminal history checks. No one who fails to pass that thorough and careful examination can work for ADJC.

It would take thousands more words to pick through the remaining errors, misstatements and false innuendo contained in Ms. Silverman's stories. I can only hope that reality will speak for itself.

Steve Meissner
Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections
Public Information Officer

Chain Gang

Meal ticket: I have only one word for your peroration about the dining public's unfortunate proclivity for patronizing chain restaurants in this region: Amen (Spice, Carey Sweet, July 5)! It's appalling how many have mushroomed (apparently complete with full parking lots), and to see how they chip away at "homegrown" establishments (while I couldn't argue that a fair number of those same homegrown eateries in this region are less than wonderful). But we'll never get better restaurants here if we continue to indicate that we're happy with swill.

Patricia Bathurst
via Internet

 
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