We jail too many kids, and for wrong rea­sons

Dayton Daily News - - IDEAS & VOICES - By Jesse Kel­ley Jesse Kel­ley is the state af­fairs man­ager for crim­i­nal jus­tice at the R Street In­sti­tute. She wrote this for In­sid­eSources. com.

The Prison Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive re­cently is­sued a re­port find­ing that sta­tus of­fenses and tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions lead to the in­car­cer­a­tion of more than 5,000 young peo­ple na­tion­wide.

A sta­tus of­fense is a non­crim­i­nal act con­sid­ered a vi­o­la­tion of the law only be­cause of the youth­ful age of the per­pe­tra­tor. For ex­am­ple, a mi­nor would face sanc­tions for drink­ing a beer or smok­ing a cig­a­rette, even though an adult can freely do both. Tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions arise when a youth, who has al­ready been placed on ju­ve­nile pro­ba­tion, does not com­plete con­di­tions of pro­ba­tion, like reg­u­lar school at­ten­dance.

For those al­ready touched by the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, the num­ber of po­ten­tial tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions in­creases due to the use of valid court or­ders (VCOs) — man­dated con­di­tions of pro­ba­tion or­dered by a ju­ve­nile court judge. If a 16-yearold com­mits the “crime” of tru­ancy, for ex­am­ple, a ju­ve­nile court judge could or­der that youth, as a con­di­tion of his pro­ba­tion, to reg­u­larly at­tend school. The added VCO — re­quired reg­u­lar school at­ten­dance — height­ens the con­se­quences of con­tin­u­ing to miss class, since do­ing so would now vi­o­late a spe­cific term of pro­ba­tion, which could lead to time in a de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity.

The VCO is overused by judges, is detri­men­tal to youth, and is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to the orig­i­nal goals of ju­ve­nile delin­quency law. It would be ben­e­fi­cial to our youth, to our com­mu­nity and to our econ­omy to min­i­mize youth­ful de­ten­tion for sta­tus-based of­fenses and in­stead im­ple­ment com­mu­nity-based al­ter­na­tives.

The goal of ju­ve­nile jus­tice de­part­ments should be to en­sure youth do not re­of­fend. Ju­ve­nile pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers and ju­ve­nile court judges should there­fore be in the busi­ness of be­hav­ior change, not in­creased pun­ish­ment.

When judges choose to de­tain youths for vi­o­la­tions of sta­tus-based of­fenses, they cur­tail the use of al­ter­na­tives to in­car­cer­a­tion that are more ef­fec­tive in changing youths’ be­hav­ior. Com­mu­nity-based al­ter­na­tives, for in­stance, have been in­creas­ingly ef­fec­tive and cost-ef­fi­cient.

Com­mu­nity-based al­ter­na­tives pro­vide a range of ser­vices and sup­ports to young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies, with the goal of ad­dress­ing the un­der­ly­ing stres­sors for youth. Of­ten­times they in­volve the use of tai­lored education meth­ods, fo­cus­ing on learn­ing that leads to em­ploy­ment. For ex­am­ple, if a young per­son has been charged with tru­ancy, a dis­cus­sion of both the im­por­tance of school at­ten­dance as well as ad­di­tional di­a­logue about ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties could reignite the child’s in­ter­est in education.

Com­mu­nity-based al­ter­na­tives to de­ten­tion are bet­ter for the youth, the com­mu­nity and the econ­omy. Right now, some 75 per­cent of youth in de­ten­tion are held for non­vi­o­lent charges and sta­tus of­fenses. Yet by pro­vid­ing a tai­lored re­cov­ery plan for each ju­ve­nile that is ap­pro­pri­ate for the spe­cific risks as­so­ci­ated with each par­tic­i­pant, states like Kansas have suc­cess­fully de­creased youth in­car­cer­a­tion rates.

Ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tems should fo­cus on end­ing de­ten­tion for sta­tus-based of­fenses once and for all. Ju­ve­nile court judges should also pro­mote en­gage­ment with com­mu­nity-based pro­grams as a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to in­car­cer­a­tion.

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