Until proven guilty

House Bill 1321 would prevent the state from locking teens in adult jails before they've had their day in court | by Pamela White, April 23, 2009

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

Former BW Editor Pamela White didn’t just uncover mistreatment of incarcerated pregnant women, she wrote regularly about prisons and jails in general, even spending the night in the Boulder County Jail one time to get a first-person account of what the conditions were like.


And in April 2009, she turned her attention to the treatment of incarcerated teens.

White says she decided to open the piece with a description of the living conditions of death-row inmate Scott Peterson, who was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, in 2002, because some teens have it worse — and that’s just while they are waiting for trial.

Juveniles facing prosecution as adults were often being kept in isolation 23 hours a day in adult facilities, to comply with state law requiring them to be kept away from adult inmates until they are adjudicated. They were being released for a short time late at night, while the adults were locked down, for a quick shower and a bit of exercise.

“If a teen goes to jail, you have to keep them separate from the adults, but that means they are in lockdown, solitary confinement,” White says.

Peterson, on the other hand, was receiving five hours of day of free time outside his cell at San Quentin State Prison. White says she thought it would be impactful to open the article with that comparison, and judges in the regional Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism contest agreed, awarding it first place in legal affairs reporting.

In the piece, White outlined cases in which teens being kept in isolation 23 hours a day had committed suicide, including James Stewart, a 17-year-old being tried as an adult for a drunk-driving accident that killed someone. He was not put on suicide watch and hanged himself with his bed sheet.

Stewart’s story was one inspiration behind Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, introducing a bill that spring to require law enforcement to keep juveniles in juvenile facilities until and unless they are convicted.

“I became very concerned about the mental health of some juveniles in jail,” Levy says. “If they’re kept in custody pre-trial, they’re often in 23-hour lockdown for six to seven months prior to being convicted.”

That’s six to seven months during what is one of the most difficult and vulnerable times of their lives. Unable to contact their parents, unable to receive the kind of supervision and treatment they’d receive at a juvenile detention center, and uncertain what’s going to become of them, they face a kind of stress that would be hard for even healthy adults to manage.

“Kids are at a much greater risk of suicide once they’re moved from detention to an adult facility,” Levy says.

White recalls that district attorneys, who are elected, were trying to appear tough on crime at the time, trying more juveniles as adults. But that had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of teens placed in isolation. Plus, the fact that several teen suicides seemed to be connected to the practice concerned her.

She pointed out in the article that locking them in adult facilities pre-trial only exacerbates the situation, particularly since some of the kids are found innocent but are scarred for life because of the experience.

One of the SPJ judges who gave the story a first place award called it “an exceptionally thoughtful, well-researched story about what has gone wrong with the juvenile justice system. Very nice exploration of all sides of the issues, brought to life by compelling stories of several juvenile offenders.”

For White, it was an emotional story to do.

“It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of the kids and their parents,” she says.

Oh, and by the way, Levy’s bill passed.