Juvenile Justice 2015 Year-End Report

Anne Teigen 1/15/2016

State juvenile justice legislation in 2015 focused on providing detention alternatives, investing in community-based programs for youth, amending waiver and transfer laws, addressing due process and rights of juveniles, limiting the use of restraints and solitary confinement, and on status offender reform. 

Group of young people

Omnibus Legislation

Three states passed sweeping juvenile justice legislation in 2015.

South Dakota passed the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, making several significant changes to the state’s juvenile justice system. The new law increases diversion alternatives, expands the use of evidence-based community programs and provides more comprehensive support for youth and their families to prevent deeper involvement in the justice system. The legislation also ensures the sustainability of reforms by reinvesting the savings in community-based programming.

West Virginia passed a measure informed by the Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice. The new law directs $4.5 million to reduce the state’s dependence on incarcerating juveniles for low level crimes. It also places truancy diversion specialists in every county to provide early intervention services, expands community-based alternatives and supports evidence-based services and pilot programs for restorative justice programs, substance abuse recovery services, mental health programs and family therapies.

North Carolina enacted a reform bill that requires for a legal guardian be present when a youth age 16 or under (it used to be 14 and under) makes any statement while in custody. The bill also requires a hearing before a young person’s probation can be extended.

Transfer, Waiver and Distinguishing Juveniles From Adult Offenders

Illinois eliminated the automatic transfer to adult court for children age 15 and under. The new law also expands discretion of juvenile court judges to make transfer decisions (after hearing both sides of the case and reviewing the rehabilitative services available to the juvenile) for 16-17 year olds except for those charged with first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm. Additionally, the new law lists mitigating factors a judge may take into consideration when sentencing a person under 18. The factors include maturity level, presence of a developmental disability, home environment, and history of childhood trauma, prior criminal record and potential for rehabilitation.

The New Jersey Legislature passed several changes to the state’s juvenile waiver statutes (laws that allow juveniles to be prosecuted in adult court) including limiting waiver to juveniles who are 15 years or older and who have committed certain serious crimes. In addition, the bill requires prosecutors to explain in writing why they support waiver for each individual case. It also grants the court the authority to deny waiver if the prosecutor abuses his or her discretion by misrepresenting the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, maturity of the juvenile or the youth’s degree of criminal sophistication. California now requires prosecutors to present more detailed and developmentally relevant evidence when moving to have a case transferred to criminal court.

Due Process and Defense Reform

States also enacted laws that increase due process protections for juveniles and provide for quality defense counsel. Arkansas now requires that certain juveniles first be convicted or found delinquent before a law enforcement agency may take his or her fingerprints. Indiana now requires that custodial interrogations of juveniles be recorded by law enforcement. And new laws in New Hampshire and Utah require the court to determine that a minor knowingly and intentionally waived counsel.

Restraints in Court and Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

Five states in 2015 passed legislation limiting the circumstances in which juveniles are required to wear restraints, such as shackles, or be detained in solitary confinement. Indiana’s law provides that young offenders should not be restrained in court unless the court has determined on the record that the young person is potentially dangerous. Nebraska’s law requires the court to make a finding of probable cause that restraints are necessary to prevent physical harm to the juvenile or others in the court room. The court must also find that there is no less restrictive alternative to restraints and allow the young person’s attorney to address the court on the issue of restraints.

 Nevada’s law is similar and lists the factors the judge must consider when making a determination to use restraints on a juvenile. The Utah legislature instructed the Judicial Council in the state to adopt rules related to the shackling of juveniles in the court room. The council must ensure the rules consider both the welfare of the juvenile and the safety of the court. A provision in a New Jersey bill restricts the use of solitary confinement for juveniles to situations where the juvenile poses an immediate risk of harm to others or to the security of the facility, and all other means have been exhausted. Each use of solitary confinement would be required to be documented and made available to the public as a public record.

Status Offenses and Truancy

At least five states in 2015 enacted measures related to status offenses and truancy. The Texas Legislature decriminalized truancy. Prior to this law Texas was one of only two states that sent truants to adult criminal court. Nebraska restricted the circumstances that status offenders can be placed out of the home and ended the practice of finger printing juveniles charged with status offenses. Rhode Island passed a similar provision, prohibiting the detention of juveniles who are in violation of court orders.

South Carolina now requires the court to expunge all records related to status offenses and Alabama  and established a Commission on Truancy, At-risk, and Delinquent Youth to study truancy and reduce the reliance of the juvenile justice system for status offenses. Tennessee created a new disposition option of taking a minor who violates curfew to a designated curfew center rather than juvenile court, revises other curfew provisions.

Appendix: List of 2015 Laws by State

  • Omnibus Legislation
    South Dakota SB 73, West Virginia SB 393, North Carolina HB 879.
  • Transfer/Waiver and Treating Juveniles Different Than Adults
    Illinois HB 3718, New Jersey SB 2003, California SB 382
  • Restraints in Court and Solitary Confinement for Juveniles
    Indiana HB 1304, Nebraska LB 482, Nevada AB 8, Utah SB 2167, New Jersey SB2003
  • Due Process and Defense Reform
    Arkansas HB 1322, Indiana HB 1304, New Hampshire HB 305, Utah SB 167
  • Status Offenses and Truancy
    Texas HB 2398, Nebraska LB 482, Rhode Island SB 583, Alabama HJR 226, Tennessee SB 666