The NCSL Blog

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By Jane Carroll Andrade

Los Angeles—The key to helping juveniles who become involved in the criminal justice system? Make sure they avoid it in the first place.

That was the message from a panel at NCSL’s Legislative Summit during a session on “Cornerstones of Effective Juvenile Justice Policy in the 21st Century.” Their recommendations were based on a report produced by NCSL and a bipartisan work group of state legislators and experts.

Panelist Dana Shoenberg from The Pew Charitable Trusts said that while violent crimes committed by juveniles have declined, “the rates of recidivism are frequently far from what policymakers find acceptable.”

She said that lawmaker show know that, In general, community-based interventions show greater reductions in rearrests than institutional responses. Second, the length of stay in an institutional setting after a certain point doesn’t matter and that low-risk kids who are incarcerated are more likely to recidivate.

“We do more harm by actually processing them through the juvenile justice system than by taking a lighter touch,” she said.

Utah Representative V. Lowry Snow, a member of the work group and session panelist, agreed. He said the charge to the group was to pay attention to public safety, improve recidivism rates and look for ways to reduce costs.

“One of the things I was most excited about was putting more focus on leaving our young people with their families in the home. Those are the best places for children to change behavior. We don’t get the good outcomes we think we’re getting by putting them in intensive treatment. In fact, we often get results that are worse. The best investment is on the front end.”

California Senator and panelist Holly J. Mitchell said her state needed to “redefine childhood.” She is most proud of a package of seven bills she co-authored with a Latino colleague designed to divert young people from the criminal justice system and make sure the ones in it receive due process. Their mission was to educate their colleagues about early childhood brain development and help them understand that “we literally were throwing babies out with bath water.”

Mitchell advised lawmakers to start by asking, “What is our role? Is it solely to punish? Or is to educate, support … and make whole?”

“Children are not pint-sized adults,” she added.

The session was introduced by group co-chairs Senator Patty Pansing Brooks of Nebraska and Senator Whitney H. Westerfield of Kentucky. Westerfied pointed to the human side of the issue. “Some of the most impactful testimony comes from those who have been through the system and use that experience to tell so powerfully why it’s so wrong,” he said.

Attendees got to find that out as Miguel Garcia shared his story. Garcia grew up with an abusive father and a mother worked two jobs after his parents divorced. Too young to understand his mother’s sacrifice, felt abandoned.

“Her absence took a toll on me,” he said. “I started seeking recognition from the streets.”

He ran with the “wrong crowd,” became depressed, and at age 14 was charged with premeditated attempted murder.  The district attorney wanted to try him as an adult. Garcia’s mother took money out of her 401K retirement account to hire an attorney and he ended up taking a plea deal.

Garcia could see that other youth were not so lucky. Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, he decided to take advantage of his second chance. He earned a scholarship, graduated from college and turned his attention to helping others. As a Youth Policy Promise Fellow in California, Garcia works on efforts like giving judges discretion to take into account a youth’s history and trauma.

“A lot of youth deserve a second chance because they weren’t even given a chance at all,” he said.

You can find the full report, “12 Principles of Effective Juvenile Justice Policy,” at ncsl.org.

Jane Carroll Andrade is a program director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.