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A 16-year-old boy was thrown into adult jail for a week after he disrupted Pulaski County Circuit Court proceedings.

Willie J. Tyler of Little Rock wasn't a defendant in any case heard that day in Judge Wendell Griffen's courtroom, he was in the audience.

He was jailed for contempt of court, a misdemeanor. State law forbids locking children up in adult jails for more than a day unless they're charged with a felony.

Youth advocates and Arkansas public defenders contend that incarcerating children with adults is potentially dangerous. Tyler's punishment possibly broke the law and was especially severe, they said.

"Writing 100 times, 'I will not curse at a judge,' is more fundamentally appropriate than what happened to him," said Marcy Mistrett, executive director of Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative focused on ending youths' involvement with the adult criminal justice system.

"There's a lot of risks putting kids in the county jail," Mistrett said. "The reason we have federal laws to protect them against this is because we know there is great harm that can happen to them there."

Tyler was booked into the Pulaski County jail on April 12, inmate records show.

His booking record indicated that he was a "felony commitment" even though the documentation cited in his booking report -- a "speed letter" signed by a court officer -- says he was charged with contempt of court. The letter ordered Tyler to serve 30 days of adult jail time and issued a $500 fine.

The boy was summarily punished, meaning he was sent to jail without trial, notice or a hearing, which is allowed in contempt of court cases, explained Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock criminal defense attorney.

The newspaper could not determine whether Tyler has had any prior involvement with the juvenile justice system, because juvenile case files aren't public. He did have a 2017 traffic violation and a failure-to-appear citation related to that ticket, according to the state's circuit court database.

Griffen and court staff didn't respond to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

On Wednesday, the newspaper asked the Pulaski County attorney's office how a youth landed behind bars for a misdemeanor offense.

Hours later, deputy county attorney Chastity Scifres responded that Tyler was transferred to a juvenile lockup that afternoon -- "after speaking with the court."

LaTonya Hall, the court's administrative assistant, also said Tyler would serve the remainder of his 30 days in the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Twenty-six minors are currently detained at the county's adult jail, according to booking reports. The youngest is 14, who faces burglary, aggravated assault and robbery charges.

Youths held there are separated from adult offenders.

Guidelines of both the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 and the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 require that children are housed separately from adult inmates. States must comply with these standards to get certain federal grant dollars.

Arkansas doesn't entirely comply with the guidelines. State law only specifies that youths being tried as juveniles, who are temporarily being held in adult facilities, must be separated from adults, said longtime Pulaski County Public Defender Dorcy Corbin, who specializes in representing children.

Corbin said Tyler's case isn't unusual and that Arkansas children are often wrongly jailed.

She argues that youths can only be classified as felons once prosecutors file a formal charging document, what's known as a criminal information.

A 16-year-old North Little Rock girl is in county jail without this documentation, for example.

The incarceration of youths in adult facilities also raises public safety and welfare concerns, said Rita Smith and Lora Noschese, deputy public defenders from Benton County.

For instance, staff members of adult prisons and jails aren't usually trained to work with children, they said. Children in adult jails and prisons are more likely to be suicidal. They're exposed to adult criminals.

Access to education, which is required by law, is also lacking, said Noschese.

Smith and Noschese say Benton County doesn't lock up children with adults, even when they are charged as such, and hasn't done so for years. Youths charged as adults are separated from the other juvenile offenders at the juvenile lockup.

They say the county's involvement with a national juvenile justice effort reshaped the way they worked with children in the system.

Pulaski County recently joined the same project, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, led by nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundation sends in experts to help local leaders figure out ways to avoid locking up low-risk youths before their court hearings.

"If you put kid in adult jail, you might as well throw that kid away," Smith said. "They're not getting rehabilitative services."

A Section on 04/20/2018

Print Headline: 16-year-old court disrupter in adult jail a week

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