For decades, a “tough on crime” mindset dictated harsh sentences and a move toward treating younger and younger teenagers as adults. Experience has shown that, especially with juvenile offenders, this approach doesn’t deter crime and may even turn mildly troubled kids into serious criminals.
Fortunately, a landmark juvenile justice bill which is up for renewal in Congress takes a more practical approach. Lawmakers should ensure the bill returns to its original intent.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which first was signed into law in 1974, is the only ederal law that sets standards for the custody and care of youth in the corrections system. It also provides support and funding to states to improve their youth systems and to reduce crime. It is centered on four key principles: low-level delinquents, such as those who run away from home or skip school, should not be held in jail; when youths are held in jail, it should not be in an adult facility; if they must be held with adults, they should be separated; and states must address the dispropor-tionate number of minority youth in the juvenile justice system.
Despite the law’s clear intent, the past couple of decades saw many efforts to move in the opposite direction. After the Columbine school massacre, there was a strong push to prosecute juveniles as adults, to fund boot camps for some offenders and to allow greater disclosure of juvenile records. Previously, there had been legislation to house violent juvenile offenders in adult facilities.
About 10 percent of incarcerated youth are in adult facilities, where they are five times more likely to be victims of sexual attacks than those held in juvenile detention, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Juveniles in adult jails are nearly eight times as likely to commit suicide as their peers in juvenile detention facilities.
Maine meets the federal law’s requirements, but hasn’t always done so. In the late 1990s, the state began to remake its juvenile justice system when lawmakers were appalled at conditions at its only youth center.
The key, says Paul Vestal, the director of children’s services for Catholic Charities of Maine and chairman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, was to bring together law enforcement officials, mental health providers, lawmakers, parents and others to find ways to avoid detention.
One result is a task force created earlier this year that aims to reduce the state’s youth detention rate by 20 percent while raising the high school graduation rate to 100 percent. Its recommendations are expected next month.
Coupled with a refocused and funded Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, this work will continue to strengthen the state’s system.