This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on July 22, 2015.
On May 25, Nevada joined thirteen other states and prohibited the sentencing of juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. This is part of the growing trend reaffirming the inherent difference between adults and youth in criminal justice. These states have realized that in no way should these offenses be trivialized, but that the facts are simply different. Juveniles, youths, children, regardless of the characterization, are not as cerebrally developed or mature as adults, leading to poor regulation of their impulsive behavior.
The punitive process for juveniles offers a special opportunity for intervention. Adult after adult in the criminal justice system have a characteristic in common; they committed offenses as juveniles, oftentimes early on in adolescence. Prior criminal offenses are frequently factors in risk assessments within the criminal justice system, as they – absent rehabilitation – are oftenpredictive of future offenses. Instead of simply housing juveniles or assessing fines, the juvenile justice system can be a first line of defense, actually creating positive changes among what are predominantly non-violent offenders. Seizing upon this opportunity can offer a multitude of possibilities, such as lower crime rates as recidivism decreases, and long-term taxpayer savings.
Unfortunately, in many states, the recidivism rates for juvenile offenders are very high. In some states, more than half of juvenile offenders will return to the criminal justice system in some form within three years of release.
What is fortunate is that many states have taken the warning signs to heart and reform was in aplenty across the nation this past legislative session. Some, such as Kansas, are still in the beginning stages. Gov. Brownback (R)authorized an investigative committee into the juvenile justice system, intended to recommend sweeping reforms that will address lagging decline in commitment rates. Majority and minority leaders have agreed to work together as they all find this issue important.
Other states are at more advanced stages. West Virginia’s governor, Earl Tomblin (D), signed an important juvenile reform bill into law on April 2. SB393 recognized that three quarters of the committed juvenile population in the state were there for misdemeanor or status offenses. Housing youth for such low-level offenses far away from their families and communities racks up cost without providing comparable gain. Instead, the state will now be keeping more low-level offenders closer to their communities through alternative sentencing such as community supervision, diversion programs, and treatment and rehabilitation facilities. Similarly, South Dakota addressed its traditionally higher juvenile incarceration rates by increasing the use of alternative sentencing. This came after the state had conducted an investigation into their juvenile justice system much like the one that Kansas is doing now.
Texas had a banner session when it came to juvenile issues. Along with other states, Texas also lowered the number of juveniles being committed to state facilities in remote locations and intensified the effort to keep youths closer to their communities and families. Additionally, the state provided an alternative to judges in truancy cases that discover simple explanations for the behavior, such as lack of transportation. Juvenile record keeping was examined as well, with an automatic expunction being offered for low-level offenders absent prosecutorial objection.
Juvenile justice is still a very live issue. The successes of today bring hope and a very positive twist to the discussion, but there are still a great many things that states may do. Legislatures, governors, and all others would be wise to keep it at the forefront of their minds.