CHICAGO — In juvenile justice circles, things are seen to be improving: Youth prisons are closing. Mental health screenings are becoming standard. Right-to-counsel for young offenders has been affirmed.
For a variety of reasons, including cutting costs, state legislatures are moving away from the punishment-focused policies for young offenders passed in the 1980s and 1990s, when juvenile crime was rising, and moving towards rehabilitation, according to a report released this week by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Youth is not a defense,” Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center told a conference session here, “but it is a mitigator.”
Some states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Missouri and Illinois, have raised the juvenile court age from 17 to 18, according to the report, which analyzed trends in juvenile justice legislation from 2001 to 2011. Colorado gave judges more discretion about which youth are transferred to adult court jurisdiction. And 29 states enacted laws to improve mental health care for the young, after research showed that up to 70 percent of youth arrested have some kind of mental health problems.
At the same time, juvenile crime has dropped off in the last decade, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data. Current youth arrest rates are lower than they were in 1980. That has led Texas and New York to close youth prisons. Illinois' Governor Pat Quinn is currently advocating that a youth prison in Murphysboro be closed, but the correction officers' union has sued to halt the closure.
But while these trends are good news for juvenile advocates, problems persist. The number of girls in the juvenile justice system has risen steadily over the last decade, the report says, and few states offer any gender-specific treatment for girls in the juvenile justice system.
For instance, in Maryland, because the state does not offer the same alternative sentencing options for girls as they do for boys, girls are more likely to be locked up away from their families than boys who commit the same crime. Nearly 80 percent of girls placed in residential facilities have been convicted of only a misdemeanor, according to a Maryland Department of Juvenile Services report.
Violence at youth facilities is another big problem that continues. Last November, a 17-year-old was beaten to death by another inmate inside of a Georgia youth detention center. Juvenile lockups in Texas saw violence increase over the last 10 years, according to analysis from the Texas Tribune. And youth housed in the Baltimore Detention Center told the Baltimore Sun that they are routinely targeted for beatings.
But juvenile advocates are hopeful that in the wake of the recent Miller v. Alabama decision, legislators will be forced to reexamine youth sentencing policies. The U.S. Supreme Court relied heavily on new developments in adolescent brain science to rule that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence is unconstitutional. They left it up to the 26 states that have this sentencing structure to change their practices to come in line with the law, and many states are expected to change their structures in the next legislative session.
“In 2012,” said Schwartz, “science has found that youth should be treated differently.”