New Guidelines Highlight Alternatives to Juvenile Lock-Up

(CN) – Recent Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile justice and emerging science on youth brain development led the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to update its guidelines this week to call for alternatives to detention of youth offenders.

In its comprehensive Enhanced Juvenile Justice Guidelines, the council kept many of the procedural recommendations issued in its original 2005 guidelines for judges and its focus on the importance of representation for youth in the juvenile justice system. But it made key updates based on recent Supreme Court rulings regarding youth and life imprisonment, the death penalty and solitary confinement and advances in science, editor Jessica Pearce said in an interview.

Since its original guidelines were released to advise judges in an area Pearce pointed out requires on-the-job training due to a lack of juvenile case law and legal precedent, courts have seen the time youth spend in detention decrease, the number of hearings consolidated and the number of cases adjudicated within 30 days increase significantly.

The guidelines encourage judges to be the “voice of juvenile court whenever possible,” and to keep in mind “even young people who make terrible decisions and commit crimes that are serious are still learning and their level of competency is not the same as adults,” Pearce said.

Council president Judge John Romero, a children’s court judge in Albuquerque, said juvenile court judges should take their role as civil servants seriously. He noted the job isn’t a “9-to-5 work day” but requires judges to spend time in the community beyond the courtroom.

Romero pointed out the new recommendations are data-driven, which can also show where areas for improvement exist. He noted data which showed girls in the juvenile justice system are held in detention much longer than boys indicate “we weren’t performing correctly.”

Data on racial disparities among youth in the juvenile justice system is also driving change, Romero said. Having youth “at the table” where policy decisions are made and holding meetings with community members after work hours and on weekends is important, he added.

“Promoting and encouraging change means we don’t just sit in a courtroom and call balls and strikes,” Romero said.

“Why are we doing the same things and expecting different results? We have to actually engage and answer questions and get out of the comfort of courtrooms where we sit up on high and call the shots.”

Reflecting national changing attitudes and laws regarding court fines and fees, the council recently passed a resolution to eliminate fines, fees and costs in juvenile court.

Pearce noted that’s a change from its original guidelines where parents paid when their children were sent to detention and even jailed if their kids were truant.

The council also changed its position on what are known as “status offender” crimes such as underage drinking or curfew violations, where the behavior is lawful for adults but unlawful for kids.

Pearce said it was previously common practice to bring status offending youth to court “to scare them a bit.” But an unintended consequence of that approach is more youth of color were being sent to court.

Now the council is recommending that status offender youth not be brought to court, but for the court to work with diversion programs and evidence-based services to keep kids in school and out of court, Pearce said.

Pearce also said the council is focusing on better risk-need tools which juvenile justice courts can utilize to determine which youth are more likely to reoffend, to better utilize judicial resources to help the 10 percent of kids who truly need support to curb law-breaking behaviors.

Not all the council’s recommendations have been largely implemented, however.

Even though the council has advised juvenile justice courts to stop shackling youth during court hearings, Pearce said most of the pushback to change has come from court bailiffs and only about one-third of juvenile courts have abandoned the practice.

Pearce also said courts are still using detention to keep kids in danger of hurting themselves, running away or being trafficked in a safe and secure place. She said doing so takes a “paternalistic view of kids” that keeps them safe in the short term but doesn’t address long-term issues.

“Putting them in detention for 10 days keeps them safe for 10 days. It is convenient but doesn’t address the risk that kid faces,” Pearce said.

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