Learning Disorder

The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections fails the state's worst kids

State Representative John Loredo says his staff has been researching the issue of ADJC's education practices. "They've got to follow Title 15," Loredo says, referring to Arizona's education laws, and he intends to find out if they are. To that end, Loredo is going to ask the Arizona Attorney General's Office for a formal opinion as to which education laws apply to ADJC. He is also in the process of setting up a meeting with legislative staff, the Arizona Center for Disability Law and ADJC officials, "trying to figure out what the department is doing and what they're not, and what they're supposed to be doing. . . . Lining up the pieces and then kicking the doors in."

If efforts on the state level fail, the federal government could step back in. Peter Leone, the former court monitor, says he knows juvenile delinquents like Kirsten -- the sixth-grade dropout runaway with the horrible family life -- aren't necessarily Arizona's top priority. But they should be, he says, for a couple of reasons.

Improved literacy is one of the best ways to reduce a kid's chances of committing more crimes once she's out of ADJC's care.

An Eagle Point student, hard at work.
Dan Huff
An Eagle Point student, hard at work.

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For the past year, New Times has been investigating conditions within the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections -- a state agency that, despite its name, has a mandate to rehabilitate, rather than punish, troubled kids. Earlier stories revealed that the department no longer follows the practices put into place by a federal court order in 1993 that were designed to ensure that proper conditions are maintained for youth in detention. Among the newspaper"s findings:

• Children are routinely put in solitary confinement in specialized "separation units" for days or weeks, sometimes even months.

• Children are locked in their cells for days at a time.

• ADJC provides substandard mental health services.

• Staff members often use violence to control kids when it is not necessary.

• Staff members have sexual relations with kids.

• Corrections officers and teachers are put at risk because of staffing shortages and because department policies are not followed.

• In many cases, children detained in Arizona are treated more harshly than their adult counterparts in the state. Kids serve time for petty offenses, receive longer sentences and are denied luxuries -- like radios and televisions in their cells -- that adult prisoners take for granted.

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"If you can read, if you can compete for a job, if you can hold a job down, crime and delinquent behavior are less attractive," Leone says.

And if that's not enough motivation, he adds, Arizonans should remember the millions of dollars in lawyers fees the state paid the last time it was sued over care for juvenile detainees. He's not an attorney, Leone admits, but he's certain that the state and federal constitutions guarantee these kids an equal education.

"Nowhere does it say you surrender your rights to an educational service by virtue of the fact that you're getting locked up."

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