JJDPA's Core Protections from Abuse & Trauma in Adult Lockup

Keri Nash
December 12, 2013

Research indicates that children held in adult jails are eight times as likely to commit suicide, five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be assaulted by staff, and fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, than children in juvenile facilities.

Two of the four core protections in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), jail removal and sight and sound separation, decrease the risk that adult inmates will abuse children. The jail removal core protection mandates that children are not detained in adult jails or lockups except for limited periods of time before releasing or transporting them to an appropriate juvenile placement.  During that limited time, youth may not have any sight or sound contact with adult inmates, meaning that juveniles cannot be housed with or placed in cells next to adult inmates, or share dining halls, recreation areas, or any other common spaces with them.  Youth may not be placed in circumstances in which they have visual or verbal contact with adult inmates.

The JJDPA has been an effective tool for getting children under juvenile court jurisdiction out of jails and lockups, but the struggle to achieve that goal has been long and hard.  Children have been held in adult jails since long before the first juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899. Conditions in the jails were notoriously bad.  In the 1970s, families started to go to court to challenge the conditions and lack of rehabilitative services available. A review of some of the cases gives an overview of the abuses the children suffered.

  • In Baker v. Hamilton, the federal judge hearing the case visited the Jefferson County jail in Louisville, Kentucky.  The judge found the jail to be decrepit and drafty with cells that had inoperable locks.  One youth placed in solitary confinement slept on the bare, concrete floor for four days without a blanket or mattress.  The jail held children in “cramped quarters, [with] poor illumination, bad circulation of air, broken locks, no outdoor recreation or exercise, and no attempt at rehabilitation.”
  • Osorio v. Rios was about the placement of children in two adult jails in Puerto Rico, La Princesa and Anexo.  Children were housed in cramped dormitories with no separation from the adult population.  The typical dormitory room in La Princesa held sixteen to seventeen youth in one small room.  Anexo placed up to thirty beds for youth in a 25 x 40 foot room.  Juveniles considered discipline problems were put in 4 x 8 foot rooms in the basement of La Princeso with as many as two other youth in the cell.  At Anexo, youth often requested placement in solitary confinement to escape sexual harassment from adult inmates. The youth received no training and participated in no educational, recreational or rehabilitative programs.    
  • D.B. v. Tewksbury challenged the confinement of children at the Columbia County Correctional Facility (CCCF), an adult jail, in St. Helens, Oregon.  Many of the children held at CCCF were pretrial detainees and status offenders.  The youth did not receive sheets, mattress covers or pillows.  Children were not allowed to wear underwear and girls had to bang on their cell doors to request personal hygiene products from male correction officers.  Isolation cells were windowless 8 x 8 foot concrete block rooms with no furnishings and a sewer hole in the center of the room for use as a toilet.  Corrections staff, not youth, controlled the mechanism for flushing the sewer hole.

These cases focused on the conditions in individual jails.  The JJDPA’s core protections apply across the United States.  The core protections have dramatically decreased the number of children held in adult jails for extended periods, and, during any brief periods of incarceration, dramatically reduced the likelihood that children may be harmed in the jail.  While litigation was essential to raising public awareness about the dangers faced by juveniles held in adult facilities, it was left to the JJDPA to create and, through funding to the states, support the national standard. 

Currently, the JJDPA’s core protections do not apply to youth prosecuted in adult criminal court, but these young people should be covered too.  Jails are no less dangerous for minors charged in adult court than for those charged in juvenile court.  The JJDPA is the single most important piece of federal legislation affecting youth in juvenile justice systems across the country.  It is one of primary vehicles for protecting youth from abuse and violence at the hands of adult inmates and that essential protection ought to be adequately funded and cover as many juveniles as possible. 

This is part of the ACT4JJ Campaign's JJDPA Matters Blog Project, a 16-week series that launched Sept. 10, 2013. You can find the full series at the JJDPA Matters Action Center.



Keri Nash is a Staff Attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP).  CCLP is a public interest law and policy organization focused on reform of juvenile justice and other systems that affect troubled and at-risk children, and protection of the rights of children in those systems. The Center’s work covers a range of activities including research, writing, public education, media advocacy, training, technical assistance, administrative and legislative advocacy, and litigation.





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