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Juvenile Justice Expert Condemns Rhode Island’s Jailing of Students for Minor Offenses

Attorney John J. Wilson, a Department of Justice lawyer for almost 31 years, and the author of federal regulations for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, has condemned the practices of Rhode Island Family Court magistrates, who have locked up dozens of juveniles for non-criminal offenses. According to Wilson, incarcerating non-criminal juveniles for even one night violates the basic premise of the federal act.

Wilson said the act provides money to states like Rhode Island if they follow federal guidelines for youths in the justice system. “We don’t punish adults for doing things that are not criminal, so why in heaven’s name would we punish children for doing things that aren’t criminal,” he asked. “[It’s] an abuse of judicial authority.... And it’s a practice that should be stopped.” At risk is the state’s eligibility to receive federal juvenile justice funding, and the state has compounded its errors by failing to report such detentions to federal officials who monitor state compliance with federal regulations.

For a number of years, according to national juvenile justice experts like Wilson, as well as attorneys, parents and students, magistrates for the Rhode Island Family Court’s truancy program have imprisoned students who misbehave during hearings on their school attendance, despite a state law designed to prevent just such a practice.

The weekly Truancy Courts, held at local schools, have resulted in students as young as twelve years old being held in criminal contempt for “not answering ... questions, swearing, slamming a door on their way out of the room or otherwise showing ‘total disregard for authority,’” according to a December 2010 article in The Providence Journal. The students are usually sent to the state Training School, a juvenile facility.

The Journal article included a series of case studies that highlighted the experiences of several students who were placed in the state’s juvenile corrections system, forced to undergo strip searches and blood and urine tests, and housed with youths accused of drug crimes, weapons possession, assault and other serious offenses. This conflicts with Rhode Island laws which state no child should be detained for a “status offense” such as skipping school, violating curfew or drinking alcohol.

However, since 2005, court records indicate that Family Court magistrates have done just that, under an exception in state law for criminal contempt of court. Few of the children were represented by attorneys prior to their hearings and detentions, in violation of their constitutional rights. The public is not allowed to attend the hearings. And according to Rhode Island Public Defender John J. Hardiman, “There’s no ‘this is a gray area of the law.’ It’s clear you can’t detain [children in] these cases.”

Between 2005 and 2009, more than six thousand Rhode Island students went through the Truancy Court, and the Journal reported that “at least 28 students were detained during those years.” Records provided by Family Court showed that all of those students were incarcerated at least overnight.

Craig N. Berke, a spokesman for the state judiciary, said, “Statistically, the detentions represent well under 1 percent of all truancy cases.... It is extremely rare....They were all for ‘criminal contempt of court,’ which means the contempt occurred in the presence of the magistrate. It is typically the result of an egregious display of disrespect for the court.”

The Rhode Island Public Defender’s office disagreed with that characterization of what has transpired in the Truancy Court proceedings. According to Jennifer A. Fitzgerald, an attorney with the public defender’s office, there are probably another 13 students who were detained after magistrates transferred their cases to the drug court diversion program; those youths also did not have attorneys, were not provided with notice of written charges, and did not receive hearings on their alleged offenses before being detained.

The Journal article stated, “Public defenders normally learn that a juvenile from these programs has been locked up only if someone alerts them or if they spot the cases on a list of detainees coming from the Training School into Family Court for a hearing.”

According to public defender Hardiman, “Their goals may be excellent goals: to try to get kids to go to school to better themselves to be more productive citizens. But taking a shortcut and sending a kid to the Training School without due process, you just can’t do it.... They’re violating the law.... And it’s wrong. And they should know better. And they do know better.”

The Journal highlighted the story of Anabel Pichardo, 15, who was found in criminal contempt of court for failing to answer questions and for being very disrespectful. Her mother, Maribel, was in labor the night that Anabel was incarcerated in December 2009. According to court records, Anabel attended a truancy hearing at the Samuel W. Bridgham Middle School in Providence, at which time Magistrate Patricia K. Asquith found her in contempt of court for failing to answer questions. She was handcuffed and spent the night at the Training School. In Family Court the next day, represented by a public defender, Anabel was released.

Her mother stated, “They put her in handcuffs.... They treated her like she was a delinquent ... like she had committed a crime.”

Another Rhode Island student, Joanne Minaya, was 12 when her mother received a court summons commanding their appearance in Truancy Court at the Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence. Appearing alone before Magistrate Edward H. Newman, Joanne was found in contempt of court for having “slammed or loudly closed the door to the classroom,” according to court documents. She was sent to the Training School for two nights.

The public defender’s office, after an unsuccessful appeal to Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, Jr., chief judge over Family Court, convinced the Supreme Court duty justice to release the girl. In their petition, Joanne’s attorneys wrote that her “conduct in slamming or loudly closing a door, if in fact she did so, clearly does not rise to the level of behavior warranting the finding of summary contempt and immediate detention.” The petition also noted that at the time she was locked up, she had not spoken with an attorney.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Rhode Island affiliate filed a class-action lawsuit against Judge Jeremiah, five magistrates and officials in a number of school districts, charging them with “operating the truancy court in secrecy and violating the constitutional rights of children and their parents.”

“The plaintiffs ... are mostly students who have learning disabilities or medical conditions and whose absences were, in some case, due to illnesses or doctor’s appointments ...,” the complaint alleged, adding, “some children were threatened with being sent to the Training School.”

Jeremiah, who retired in June 2010 after 23 years as chief judge, had previously won national attention for his Truancy Court idea, which began in Providence in 1999. Over the past ten years the program has received $1.5 million in federal funds and expanded into 25 school districts. Jeremiah had previously described the truancy program as a “nonpunitive system” whose purpose was to support, not punish, students.

The Truancy Court is presented to students and their parents as an alternative to the more onerous charges that might result from Family Court. Students and their parents are required to sign two forms, admitting to truancy offenses and waiving the right to a trial before a judge in Family Court. But according to the Journal, “nowhere on the waiver form is it mentioned that a student who agrees to participate in the truancy court rather than go to trial may be sent to the Training School without speaking to a lawyer or having an opportunity for a hearing on the evidence, as is required in Family Court.”

Annie Salsich, director of the Youth Justice Program at the VERA Institute for Justice, said that although judges who lock up juveniles might have good intentions, they also may be creating more serious problems. “Mixing kids who are low risk with the kids who really do pose a risk to public safety – they learn skills we don’t want them to be learning,” she noted. Clearly, there is a problem with housing status offenders with more serious criminals where the safety of the former is at serious risk.

On October 8, 2010, Superior Court Judge William Carnes denied a motion by Family Court judges to dismiss the ACLU’s class-action suit. Since the lawsuit was filed, four school districts – Coventry, Cumberland, North Providence and Woonsocket – have agreed to no longer refer students to Truancy Court. See: Boyer v. Jeremiah, Providence Superior Court (RI), Case No. 2010-1858.

More recently, according to an April 22, 2011 press release, the Rhode Island ACLU “has urged the United States Department of Justice to investigate the detention of truants overnight at the state Training School,” citing violations of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

Sources: The Providence Journal,

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Related legal case

Boyer v. Jeremiah