A bill that’s already been introduced for the upcoming General Assembly session would stop youth incarceration in adult prisons in Delaware.
State law currently allows teens ages 16 to 18 who are convicted in Superior Court to be housed in adult prisons. The Youthful Criminal Offenders Program (YCOP), which recently moved from Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington to Sussex Correctional Institution, separates youth from adult inmates.
But House Bill 26 would keep those under 18 out of Department of Correction custody entirely, instead keeping them under the purview of the state Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families (Kids' Department).
“Kids make mistakes, and they have poor judgement, but it shouldn’t ruin their whole life and put them in an adult prison,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte). “Kids are different than adults.”
Heffernan argues that since the teens are kept completely separate from adult inmates and there are often few of them, their experience is similar to solitary confinement.
“If we force them into a prison system for adults, what’s going to happen is it’s not going to end up rehabilitating them, it’s probably going to end up making them into hardened criminals,” Heffernan said.
But the state Department of Correction (DOC) disagrees.
“YCOP participants received specialized, one-on-one education tailored to their individual academic needs,” DOC spokesperson Jason Miller said in an emailed statement. “They receive individualized programming and services. They have daily access to outside recreation, gym and the weight room. If there are no disciplinary issues, they have weekly access to an Xbox.”
Education is mandatory for juveniles without a high school diploma, and offenders attend classes five days a week, according to DOC. The programming youth inmates receive includes substance abuse treatment, anger management and other life skills. The DOC website describes YCOP as “a therapeutic community, which seeks to change behaviors through structured programming.”
Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to end the YCOP program before.
Heffernan says the latest effort includes some tweaks.
“This would allow the Kids’ Department to petition Superior Court to transfer a child that they couldn’t safely supervise to another entity in Delaware or out of state, and have the courts help them come up with a plan,” she said. “I think this change is going to make it have a much higher chance of passing.”
There is currently only one boy in the Youthful Criminal Offenders Program at Sussex Correctional Institution, according to DOC. Last fiscal year there were ten teens sentenced to the program. In Fiscal Year 2019 there were 24, and in Fiscal Year 2018 there were 37.
Miller said there has not been a recent case of a female youth sentenced as an adult to DOC custody, but that in such a circumstance DOC would make “appropriate placement arrangements.”
A 2017 assessment of Delaware’s juvenile defense and justice system by the National Juvenile Defender Center described the physical conditions in the YCOP program at Sussex Correctional Institute as “filthy,” lacking cameras, and “absolutely unacceptable for housing children,” and cast the educational programming as insufficient. The report advised against sentencing youth in adult court.