The Special Litigation Section works to protect the rights of youth confined in juvenile detention and commitment facilities run by, or on behalf of, state or local governments. We may also investigate whether juveniles are at risk of unnecessary confinement in such institutions. We also examine whether juvenile justice systems comply with youths’ civil rights. If we find that a juvenile justice system or a state or local government systematically deprives youth of their rights, we can act.
We use information from various sources, including community members affected by civil rights violations, to bring and pursue cases. The voice of the community is very important to us. This information informs our case selection. We may sometimes use it as evidence in an existing case. However, we cannot bring a case based on every report we receive.
Our work includes many different kinds of activity. We speak with families, children and other community stakeholders. We review and investigate complaints. We file lawsuits in federal court when necessary, and enforce orders we obtain from the courts. We participate in cases brought by private parties. We work closely with nationally renowned experts to provide training and technical assistance.
Description of the Laws We Use in Our Juvenile Work
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a, allows us to review conditions and practices within juvenile justice institutions. Under CRIPA, we have no authority to assist with individual claims. We also cannot correct a problem in a federal facility or actions by federal officials. We do not assist in criminal cases. We cannot assist with claims that a juvenile has been wrongly adjudicated.
After a CRIPA investigation, we can act if we identify a systemic pattern or practice that causes harm. Evidence of harm to one individual only – even if that harm is serious – is not enough. If we find systemic problems, we send the state or local government a letter that describes the problems and says what steps they must take to fix them. We will try to reach an agreement with the state or local government on how to fix the problems. If we cannot agree, we may file a lawsuit in federal court.
In addition to actions under CRIPA, the Section may use the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141 (re-codified at 34 U.S.C. § 12601). This law allows us to investigate and bring lawsuits to protect the rights of youth involved in the juvenile justice and detention systems. Under this law, we can determine whether youths’ civil rights are being complied with in juvenile arrests, juvenile courts and juvenile probation systems, as well as in detention facilities.
Results of Our Juvenile Work
Our juvenile work addresses a wide variety of issues, including medical care, mental health care, protection from physical and sexual abuse, equal treatment for youth regardless of race or ethnicity, and fair court procedures. For example, in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, we obtained a comprehensive agreement that addresses suicide prevention, how youth are disciplined, keeping youth safe from physical and sexual abuse and staff accountability.
We often obtain relief that is designed to reform juvenile detention systems and that affects large numbers of juveniles. For example, we have agreements concerning seven facilities for juveniles in Puerto Rico, seven juvenile facilities in Ohio and 14 juvenile facilities in Los Angeles County, California.
The Section’s work helps to ensure that children who were living in dire, often life-threatening, conditions receive adequate medical and mental health care, protection from staff-on-youth or youth-on-youth violence and exploitation, effective programs that encourage juveniles to manage their behavior, adequate educational services, and other protections. We are also working with jurisdictions to explore alternatives to juvenile incarceration.
Our Work with Others in the Federal Government on Behalf of Juveniles
We work closely with other parts of the Justice Department and other federal agencies that regulate, fund, and provide technical assistance to state and local governments. We work with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, the United States Department of Education, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, our staff advances the rights of juveniles through our work on the Department’s Prison Rape Elimination Working Group, and other task forces.