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October 29, 2013

Detailing new state reform efforts to ensure kids get treated as kids by criminal justice system

29juvenile-graphic-popupToday's New York Times has this big story about modern juvenile justice reforms under the headline "A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons." The piece is mostly focused on a recent reform in Colorado, but here is an excerpt discussing the national trends:

In a reversal of the tough-on-crime legislation that swept the nation in the late 1980s and ’90s, nearly half of the states have now enacted one or more laws that nudge more young offenders into the juvenile justice system, divert them from being automatically tried as adults and keep them from being placed in adult jails and prisons.

Sarah Brown, a director of the criminal justice program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the shift stems from a decline in juvenile crime, concerns about the costs of adult prisons and a growing understanding of adolescent brain development showing that the young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.

The Supreme Court has increasingly taken neurological research into account on juvenile justice issues — most recently in a 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which barred mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18. Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in the case cited adolescents’ “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”

Eleven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, have passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons. Eight states, including California, Missouri and Washington, passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Four — Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Mississippi — have broadened the powers of their juvenile courts, enabling them to take cases of juveniles who would have automatically been tried as adults. And 12 states, including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Utah, have adjusted the laws governing the transfer of young offenders into the adult system in ways that make it more likely that they will be tried as juveniles.

Many of these bills have passed with bipartisan support in states both Republican and Democratic and with the testimony of the young who are affected and their families, said Liz Ryan, the president of Campaign for Youth Justice, which recently issued a report on the shifts.

October 29, 2013 at 10:05 AM | Permalink


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In a sense, I think this development fits in well with Thomas Bernard’s “Cycle” Theory, which roughly states that because there will always be a perception that juvenile delinquency is out of control (regardless of its actual level), the juvenile justice system will constantly shift from radically punitive to radically permissive in an attempt to control the problem. Perhaps we are merely on one of these many downshifts, and can expect to swing in a more punitive direction down the road.

But I also think this development is a way to break Bernard’s “cycle” for two reasons: first, this more lenient turn seems to be less about deterrence or incapacitation than it is about retribution. No one is saying we need to waive fewer juveniles or execute none at all because the overly harsh system produces delinquent activity; the argument, right or wrong, is that they don’t deserve it.

Second, though this article is about statutory changes, it’s primarily been a Court-driven system, and there is no changing Roper, Graham, or Miller—indeed, given Roper v. Simmons’ facts (a 17-year-old who committed a heinous murder), I doubt a test case could come along anytime soon (unlike, say, Kennedy v. Louisiana’s challenge to Coker).

Posted by: GP | Oct 29, 2013 2:54:44 PM

Speaking of for the children....

Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?
October 26, 2013
CONGRESS is often compared to pre-K, which seems defamatory of small children. But the similarities also offer hope, because an initiative that should be on the top of the national agenda has less to do with the sequester than with the A.B.C.’s and Big Bird.

Growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is — you guessed it! — early education programs, including coaching of parents who want help. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address for such a national initiative, but it hasn’t gained traction. Obama himself hasn’t campaigned enough for it, yet there’s still a reed of hope.

One reason is that this is one of those rare initiatives that polls well across the spectrum, with support from 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in a recent national survey. And even if the program stalls in Washington, states and localities are moving ahead — from San Antonio to Michigan. Colorado voters will decide next month on a much-watched ballot measure to bolster education spending, including in preschool, and a ballot measure in Memphis would expand preschool as well.

“There’s this magical opportunity” now to get a national early education program in America, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. He says he’s optimistic that members of Congress will introduce a bipartisan bill for such a plan this year.

“When you think how you make change for the next 30 years, this is arguably at the top of my list,” Duncan said. “It can literally transform the life chances of children, and strengthen families in important ways.”

Whether it happens through Congressional action or is locally led, this may be the best chance America has had to broaden early programs since 1971, when Congress approved such a program but President Nixon vetoed it.

The massive evidence base for early education grew a bit more with a major new study from Stanford University noting that achievement gaps begin as early as 18 months. Then at 2 years old, there’s a six-month achievement gap. By age 5, it can be a two-year gap. Poor kids start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up — especially because they regress each summer.

One problem is straightforward. Poorer kids are more likely to have a single teenage mom who is stressed out, who was herself raised in an authoritarian style that she mimics, and who, as a result, doesn’t chatter much with the child.

Yet help these parents, and they do much better. Some of the most astonishing research in poverty-fighting methods comes from the success of programs to coach at-risk parents — and these, too, are part of Obama’s early education program. “Early education” doesn’t just mean prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, but embraces a plan covering ages 0 to 5.

The earliest interventions, and maybe the most important, are home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership. It begins working with at-risk moms during pregnancy, with a nurse making regular visits to offer basic support and guidance: don’t drink or smoke while pregnant; don’t take heroin or cocaine. After birth, the coach offers help with managing stress, breast-feeding and diapers, while encouraging chatting to the child and reading aloud.

These interventions are cheap and end at age 2. Yet, in randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among those who had gone through the program.

Something similar happens with good pre-K programs. Critics have noted that with programs like Head Start, there are early educational gains that then fade by second or third grade. That’s true, and that’s disappointing.

Yet, in recent years, long-term follow-ups have shown that while the educational advantages of Head Start might fade, there are “life skill” gains that don’t. A rigorous study by David Deming of Harvard, for example, found that Head Start graduates were less likely to repeat grades or be diagnosed with a learning disability, and more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Look, we’ll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point. We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end. To some extent, we face a choice between investing in preschools or in prisons.

We just might have a rare chance in the next couple of months to take steps toward such a landmark early education program in America. But children can’t vote, and they have no highly paid lobbyists — so it’ll happen only if we the public speak up.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.


Posted by: George | Oct 29, 2013 3:43:09 PM

Texas' juvie de-incarceration reforms are actually a much bigger deal than the much-more touted probation reforms on the adult side. The population of Texas youth prisons went down by around 3/4 since 2007, while juvenile crime continued declining, despite numerous Bill-Otis-style naysayers. It's been quite an impressive thing, and mostly unheralded. The "Texas model" on the adult side appears pretty lame for most states with lower incarceration rates than us. On the juvie side, what Texas has done is a really big deal.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 29, 2013 6:32:15 PM

Grits is not saying something. They stopped locking kids up accused of having an ounce or less of marijuana. That is not even a crime. It is a made up malum prohibitum to generate government make work jobs. Ending that abuse and stealing from the tax payer proves nothing in this debate.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 30, 2013 5:59:10 AM

No, SC, it was much more sweeping than that. Actually had nothing to do with pot or drugs at all - possessing less than two ounces is a misdemeanor in Texas and the youth prisoners they began managing in the community were mostly felons, including those who'd committed violent offenses. It was a radical reaction to juveniles being sexually molested by staff. Today the largest group that still goes to Texas youth prisons are kids who committed very serious violent crimes or who have mental health problems that less-populous communities don't have resources to handle. The big counties are now mostly handling their business locally using significant grant funds from the state (which still turned out cheaper than state-run youth lockups). You clearly know nothing about the Texas juvenile system or the recent reforms there at all.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 30, 2013 9:04:46 AM

Focus on Crime rate, not Incarceration rate.

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 30, 2013 3:05:50 PM

Adamakis --

"Focus on Crime rate, not Incarceration rate."

Good grief, man, what is the matter with you? If we focus on the crime rate, that would mean we're concerned with the 99% of our citizens who aren't in jail, instead of the 1% who are.

Don't you know that the well-being of the 1% is more important than the well-being of the 99%?

I must say, the New Aristocracy of The Imprisoned One Percent gives a whole new meaning to the Occupy Movement, who first alerted the nation to the dangers of cowtowing to a small minority.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 30, 2013 3:54:20 PM

Kristof: “Growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is — you guessed it! — early education programs, including coaching of parents who want help. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty.”

Ah yes, the Early Head Start genie, which has worked as well with crime and poverty as
Nobel Peace Prize Recipient President Obama has worked with peace and diplomacy.

Adrian Peterson, anyone?
Philip Chism?

Got milk; better question:
Got Dad?

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 31, 2013 8:40:07 AM

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