Prof. examines behaviors, outcomes for detained youth

Given high rate of reincarceration for juveniles, study hopes to identify risk factors

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Marina Tolou-Shams, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to examine the prevalence of risk behaviors and certain other outcomes in formerly incarcerated Rhode Island juveniles now reentering the community.

Tolou-Shams’s study of juveniles in the justice system is the first of its kind to examine the threat caused by STDs, particularly HIV, in addition to risks posed by alcohol and drug abuse, she said. “We know that adults that are incarcerated have four times the rates of HIV,” but studies have not documented younger people well enough yet.

The number of incarcerated youths in the state has decreased in the last few years, Tolou-Shams said, adding that “80 percent of youth are diverted from incarceration.” In this new wave of juvenile justice, the emphasis is placed on rehabilitation, she said.

Lower-risk kids are not sent to juvenile detention centers such as the Rhode Island Training School and the Youth Development Center at the rates that they once were, Tolou-Shams said.

There is a causal relationship between initial offense and reentry into the justice system for juveniles, Tolou-Shams said, adding that “the biggest way we will be able to inform any level of future policy change will be around showing the court” this relationship.

With its potential to inform the courts’ day-to-day processes, “this is not the kind of work you can do without the integration and support of all the court staff,” Tolou-Shams said.

“Often youth who commit crimes do it because they are acting out in response to trauma,” said Toby Ayers, executive director of Rhode Island for Community and Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting bigotry, biases and racism through policy and youth programming. Supportive services are a preferable option because they give young people a better chance at building a successful life, she added.

Young minorities, most often males, are highly overrepresented in the incarcerated population, Ayers said. Though there are opportunities for community-based diversion, these are limited in urban areas, she said, adding that many minority juveniles cannot access the services they need.

RICJ also focuses on where and how children are arrested, Ayers said, citing the increase in arrests that usually follows the stationing of police officers in schools for protective purposes. “It’s like a pipeline,” she said.

The use of arrests to punish juveniles for minor offenses is a significant problem, said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island, adding that arrests made in the school setting are most often for “disorderly conduct.”

“People fail to recognize the potentially devastating consequences that arresting a young person can have on them,” he said, adding that the school-to-prison pipeline is a reality with huge ramifications.

“We have this incarceration, imprisonment, punishment mentality,” said Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology, as well as the cofounder and director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human rights at the Miriam Hospital.

“The population that gets incarcerated has a high burden of disease,” Rich said. Rhode Island should consider the underlying causes of intervention and consequences of incarceration, he said. “I think we need to reconsider what we’re doing here,” he added.

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