Thirty or so years ago, I reported from a New York state prison for juvenile delinquents on how American teens were being held behind bars without any consideration for their constitutional rights. To what extent has this changed in states today?
In a Jan. 1 editorial, The New York Times provided the answer: "The juvenile justice system in the United States is supposed to focus on rehabilitation for young offenders. But for generations, it has largely been a purgatory, failing to protect them or give them the help and counseling they need to become law-abiding adults.”
This editorial followed a vital story about Shelby County, Tenn., and the Department of Justice in the Dec. 18, 2012, Times. "The county and the Justice Department signed an extensive agreement to overhaul the county's juvenile justice system."
I was glad to discover the Justice Department does remember the actual meaning of its name, after its torture rationalizations under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and its agreement with Barack Obama's personally directed "kill lists."
This Dec. 17, 2012, agreement contained some "first of its kind" policies, as reported by the Times, that were the result of the Justice Department's 2009 investigation into Shelby County's juvenile justice system. Among the frightful distortions of the Constitution the department found:
"Black teenagers were twice as likely as white teenagers to be detained and were sent to adult criminal court for minor infractions far more often than whites.
"Black or white, teenagers locked up by the county attempted suicide at record rates and were sometimes strapped to deep, white restraint chairs and left alone up to five times longer than the law allowed.
"They languished over long weekends without proper hearings, were not read their Miranda rights and received crucial court documents just before hearings, if they received them at all ..."
So what is changing now in Tennessee because of its agreement with the federal government? Dig this: Some teens whose offenses are not serious are now issued summonses instead of being hauled to detention to await a hearing, and a model in-school program of tutoring and counseling has been keeping students who commit minor offenses out of juvenile court altogether.
More changes that must still be made in the state of Tennessee include "advising teenagers of their Miranda rights and holding hearings within 48 hours to determine if children should remain in custody."
The 2014 elections are getting nearer -- not just for Congress, but at the state and local level. How many candidates of either party will say a word about why so many American teens are second-class citizens?
Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.