Don't Delay Ending Sexual Abuse of Incarcerated Youth

A government study released today reveals that an appalling number of youth are raped while in detention - more often than not at the hands of the very officials who are sworn to keep them safe.

According to this unique national survey of detained youth, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 12 percent of children behind bars reported being sexually assaulted in the previous year alone. At the worst facilities, one in three young people reported sexual abuse.

Sexual violence shatters the lives of children, dramatically altering the way they perceive themselves and their world. Without help, survivors struggle with shame, anger and isolation. For many, sexual abuse leads to long-term emotional trauma, trapping countless boys and girls in lives of poverty and petty crime.

Rape behind bars is preventable. Some juvenile facilities are plagued by sexual abuse while others are virtually free from this type of violence. Good facilities have committed management, staff who respect professional boundaries, and strong policies.

Last June, an expert commission issued the first-ever national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars. Mandated by a federal law - the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 - the standards were formulated with the input of corrections experts, advocates, and prisoner rape survivors.

The standards address core corrections management issues such as staff training, inmate education, housing, investigations, and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act stipulates that the U.S. Attorney General take no more than a year to review the standards before finalizing them as federal regulations. Policy experts, corrections officials, and politicians have called for quick movement - and media has highlighted the issue, from the Washington Post to The New York Review of Books.

Unfortunately, however, Attorney General Eric Holder has failed to take decisive action on this. Now it appears that the administration will need extra time to formalize the standards -- perhaps as much as a year. That's another year in which thousands of children will be sexually abused in juvenile detention facilities. Such a delay is unconscionable.

Sexual abuse of children in state custody is a serious human rights violation and an affront to our society's most basic values. With the power to stop these violations, there is no excuse for dawdling. It's time for Attorney General Holder and President Obama to demonstrate that they are committed to ending this heinous violence by quickly codifying the national standards before them.