The juvenile justice system saw some highs and lows during the pandemic, according to a panel at the 2021 NCSL Legislative Summit.
Many of the programs meant to support youth who wind up in the system were extremely limited or shut down, according to Anne Teigen, associate director of NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program. But some states managed to pass reforms that help more kids avoid the system altogether, which saves the states money and spares the youths from being dogged by a criminal background.
Rewriting the Code
North Dakota Senator Diane Larson (R) said the Legislature rewrote the juvenile justice code after appointing a task force to review it in 2019. A key change is that many offenses that once would have sent an offender to court will now be treated as a “child in need of services.”
“That means they no longer go to court,” she said. “If there is a police report, it is no longer referred to court, it is referred to social services for evaluation and support for both the child and the family.”
Larson said it can be simpler and more effective to work directly with social services rather than involving the court.
“If someone is out past curfew, (social service workers) don’t have to open a case and do a whole family history. They can treat it like the court has and send (the offender) to a program like restorative justice,” she said.
Initially, lawmakers heard from school administrators who worried they wouldn’t have enough support to deal with troubled kids, Larson said. The key is to help educators understand systems such as restorative justice, which enables students who are at odds to work out their differences before outside intervention is required.
The state also is training teachers in what’s known as the multitier system, which provides students interventions targeted to their needs, and offering juveniles the right to an attorney who will be paid by the state if the parents can’t or won’t pay.
Avoiding the Courts
In Nevada, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D) said lawmakers sought to get juveniles help to avoid court if possible. The state has a program called The Harbor, where police are directed to take offenders for assessment. Staff at The Harbor determine whether kids and their families need mental health counseling, anger management, help with substance abuse or other services.
Nevada also has struggled to determine the right age for a child to be in the adult system, Yeager said. Now, only juveniles charged with murder can be directly filed in adult court; all other cases must go through the juvenile system, and prosecutors must seek permission to file in adult court.
In recent years, lawmakers have discussed how to better protect the rights of juveniles who are potential suspects, Yeager said. They considered requiring a parent or lawyer to be present for any police questioning, but police worried that was too impractical in the fast-moving early stages of an investigation.
This legislative session they came up with a Miranda warning geared to juveniles so they would understand they had a constitutional right to have a parent or lawyer present.
The state’s youth legislature, which is made up of high school students appointed by state senators, promotes a bill each session. This time the students wrote and successfully pushed a bill to train people who work in the juvenile justice system how to recognize bias and develop cultural competency, Yeager said.
Closing Youth Records
Nevada also lowered the age at which juveniles can request their records be closed, from 21 to 18, Yeager said.
NCSL’s Teigen noted a juvenile record can be devastating for young people as they try to rebuild their lives. She cited a recent study by the Council of State Governments saying a juvenile record can hurt chances for admission to college, the armed services and government jobs.
“A juvenile conviction can really affect someone’s future, and it’s massive,” she said.
Teigen said a survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that during the pandemic, the use of juvenile detention was down for white youths but up for Black and Latino youths, and that agencies were slower to release Black and Latino teens from detention. More research is needed to determine the reasons and the solution, she said.
The pandemic has limited effective community service options as organizations shut down their volunteer programs, Teigen said. Some courts are trying alternatives, such as assigning educational projects that offenders can do at home with remote support. On a positive note, juvenile courts and probation officers are finding that the development of remote contacts during the pandemic could be helpful going forward. Teigen said some agencies expect to proceed with a hybrid of remote and in-person check-ins.
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.