Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rhetoric or Results?: Juvenile Justice Reform in the Last 10 Years

By Angela Watson

It’s no secret that youth between the ages of 10-17 aren’t always the best decision makers (neither are adults for that matter … but that’s a different conversation
). However, our juvenile justice system doesn’t seem to reflect such truth. In fact, more often than not our juvenile justice system treats youth, who are still coming of age and finding their way in the world, as if they don’t deserve the proper and attention and care necessary to aid them in the process of becoming productive adults. Steadily since the 1960s, the idea and rhetoric of the “juvenile justice system” has faded.
The result is that the current “juvenile justice system” has been converted into a junior version of the adult criminal justice system. Without going too far into the ills of our criminal justice system, propelling children into such a barbaric system is nothing short of appalling. And it’s worth mentioning that it costs taxpayers an arm and a leg to support the juvenile justice leg of the prison industrial complex. Unfortunately, for our nation’s youth, our nation’s future, an over dependency on mass incarceration doesn’t leave a bright outlook on what is to come for our nation’s citizens as a whole.

It wouldn’t be fair to attempt a discussion on this topic without giving recognition to the multitude of reforms that the juvenile justice system has attempted to implement over the past 10 years to rectify the virtual attack on our nation’s youth. Certain states and localities have made major differences while others continue on the path of converting misguided children into institutionalized “delinquents” and eventually, but not too soon thereafter, institutionalized adults.

An overview of the juvenile justice reform models employed by various states and localities  reveal various methods of restructuring the juvenile justice system to more accurately reflect the purpose for which it was created; treatment and protection of children through rehabilitation -- not punishment. The first step central to the majority of these restructuring models is to eliminate or incentivize the elimination of children being sent to state institutions for secure confinement. Instead, most of the models encourage and depend on community based alternatives to confinement in state facilities. However, such a goal begs the question: although children are not being sent to state facilities, are children still being confined at the same rates, just locally? To answer that question, yes and no. Some states have made a conscious effort to move away from secure confinement of youth to actually providing individualized services (imagine that!) that actually treat the youth.

Such programs have resulted in decreased recidivism which signals less crime and proper treatment of the child. However, on the other hand, some localities have just stopped arresting kids for frivolous reasons, which has resulted in decreased population in their secure confinement facilities, prompting downsizing of their facilities. Other states have passed legislation either requiring the county or locality to pay a portion of the cost of confining youths in state run secure detention facilities, or in some states, the full cost. Thus prompting counties and localities to be more conscious of the types of behaviors for which they will seek to have a child incarcerated, or pay the cost. Finally, some states have talked the talked but have not walked the walk. Those states talked big reform but yet to have implemented any sound plan or policy and thus have not achieved any results in accomplishing a working juvenile justice model.

Nationally, we still just aren’t there yet in stabilizing a working juvenile justice system that meets the goals and purposes for which it was originally created. Some states and localities are steadily working to achieve the best results and as such can serve as guides to other states and localities. For more information on reforms of certain states in recent years, please view the JPI reports titled: The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make GoodFiscal Sense  and Cost-Effective Youth Corrections: Rationalizing the Fiscal Architecture ofJuvenile Justice Systems.

Angela Watson is an intern for JPI.

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