Each day more than 600 children and teen-agers are jailed in California, nearly half of them in adult cells.
California leads the nation in putting youngsters under 18 behind bars built to hold adults. About 10% of Americans live in the Golden State, but more than 20% of the nearly 500,000 young people who will spend some time in an adult jail nationwide this year will be Californians, U.S. Justice Department figures show.
These figures outrage Tim McFlynn and Paul Mones, two public-interest lawyers from Santa Monica, especially since studies during two decades have found that only about one in eight children incarcerated in either juvenile or adult detention is accused of a serious offense. The attorneys call jailing children "state-sponsored child abuse."
About one in four of the 1.6 million children incarcerated last year in both adult and juvenile facilities had not committed any crime, U.S. Justice Department data shows. These youths were victims of child abuse or neglect, were mistakenly picked up or were held for what the courts call status offenses, such as running away or being sexually promiscuous. This conduct is of interest to police only when it is done by juveniles and is not a crime for adults.
Public-interest lawyers traditionally challenge situations they find offensive by identifying odious examples, filing a lawsuit and, as McFlynn put it, "getting a judge to make new law, which, unfortunately, the public tends to view as liberal law."
McFlynn and Mones, through the Public Justice Foundation, plan a different approach.
They want to change the conventional wisdom about kids and jails--and many other issues affecting American families. "Ultimately it is public attitudes, not judges' rulings, that make change in America," McFlynn said.
"What we are setting out to do is to benefit our children's children, because changing widely held attitudes is going to take years," McFlynn, the father of five, said.
Neither man expects to stir public opinion and win reforms by showing that jailing kids makes them more likely to become criminals or by citing examples of children murdered, raped or beaten behind bars, although evidence of both abounds.
Through Their Wallets
Instead, they think the quickest way to reach people's hearts and minds is through their wallets. And they plan to use litigation to demonstrate their contention that policies such as jailing juveniles waste millions of tax dollars.
"The Public Justice Foundation is about taxpayers' civil rights," McFlynn said. "The hidden victims of ineffective programs are the taxpayers who year in and year out are forced to pay for programs that not only do not work but make the problems worse.
"Jailing kids costs much, much more than other alternatives," McFlynn, the foundation executive director, added.
"The fact is that what we do now doesn't work and what does work is cheaper, as everybody who has looked at the issue has found. But the public doesn't know that and the system therefore is not under any pressure to change. The people in the system often don't know, either, about alternatives.
"We think showing that there is a better way and that the better way is cheaper will bring about broad changes in social attitudes," McFlynn said.
Jailing a juvenile currently costs $24 per day, according to a national study by the American Justice Institute, while sending youngsters to a small group home with trained supervision, but no bars, costs $17 per day. Sending youngsters home but checking up on them regularly costs $14 per day, the institute found.
"On a per-day basis, non-penal care can cost more than jail if you have extensive services for children," said Mones, the foundation legal director and a veteran children's advocate. "But the overall, long-term costs are less because the recidivism rate for non-penal approaches is much, much lower. Once you put kids behind bars the likelihood that they will get into serious trouble, or into more trouble, increases dramatically."
Both men believe public attitudes about youths and jailing will change once the costs seep into the public consciousness.
McFlynn learned how money motivates after he filed a lawsuit in 1975 on behalf of Robert Sundance, a Sioux Indian. The Los Angeles police arrested Sundance for public drunkenness so often that he averaged 226 days per year in jail in the four years before McFlynn took up his case.
Sundance sent a handwritten petition to federal Judge Warren J. Ferguson, who passed it on to the Center for Law in the Public Interest, where McFlynn worked. McFlynn said the issue of whether police could legally arrest drunks did not mesh with the center's interests and he was asked to write a polite letter declining to act on the petition.