September 19, 2021 22:12

Will Squeeze on State Budgets Drive More Youth Justice Reforms?

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Photo by peretzpup via Flickr

Growing financial pressures are likely to bring about more changes in youth justice systems across the country, despite election results that left statehouse leaderships largely unchanged, according to an official with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Addressing a webinar on youth justice reform as final votes for the 2020 races were still being tallied, Anne Teigen, director of the criminal justice program at the NCSL, said it appeared there was little change in the “status quo” in party control over state legislatures.

According to Ballotpedia, Republican gained majorities in the New Hampshire and Montana legislatures, Final legislative results were still unclear in Alaska and Arizona.

Nevertheless, Teigen noted that the financial pressures on state justice systems since 2008 have already driven significant changes in youth justice, and she predicted that as a result of even tighter budgets squeezed by the pandemic, more lawmakers were open to making more fundamental changes.

“2020 has been a terrible, explosive year for state budgets, so they’re going to be looking for more efficient ways to deal with corrections budgets—and juvenile justice budgets are a part of that,” Teigen said.

“Legislators found they had a system that was both extremely expensive and not working.”

Studies have shown, for instance, that the cost of keeping a young person incarcerated can range from $80,000 a year to $200,000, with recidivism rates still as high as 80 percent.

Teigen observed that another factor driving the already-widespread bipartisan support for youth justice reform is the growing willingness of legislators to integrate lessons from the science of adolescent development into assessments of what works and what doesn’t work.

Advances in brain science and a growing understanding of adolescent behavior have helped to correct the “knee jerk” tough-on-crime response to youths involved in the criminal justice system across the country, Teigen said.

The scientific consensus that adolescents are not yet “wired” to make rational judgments on behavior—with backing from Supreme Court rulings—has persuaded a majority of states to raise the age of adult jurisdiction from 16 to 17 or 18 —with the exception of Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas.

‘Secret Ingredient’

The “number one secret ingredient is the brain science, which has been cited and used in over five U.S. Supreme Court cases,” Teigen said.

She added that increased scientific knowledge has also helped policymakers shift juvenile justice strategies ranging from incarceration to solitary confinement towards strategies of diversion and community counseling.

“What’s so exciting is that there’s so much data out there, and studying of what does work and what doesn’t,” she said. “Legislators are becoming educated.”

Among the areas of youth justice reform identified by Teigen as likely to get greater attention in the years ahead are:

      • Expanding education opportunities for youths still in detention facilities;
      • Improving conditions of confinement for youths locked up for serious crimes, including limiting or eliminating the use of solitary;
      • Reforming juvenile probation and expunging juvenile records;
      • Limiting or eliminating court fines and fees for justice-involved youth.

Several states have already moved further in those directions, Teigen noted.

Some of the most far-reaching and significant reforms, however, still remain an uphill battle. A campaign to raise the age of adult jurisdiction to affect young adults in the 18-25 age range is gathering support slowly, she said.

Anne Teigen

“Science is teaching us, you know, that 18 may not be the magic age—this debate is going to come to a head in the next couple of years as legislators look at ways to designate specific measures for young adults,” she said.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing states is to end the racial and ethnic disparities that continue to distort the juvenile justice system, Teigen said.

“Compared to young white people, young people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the nation’s criminal justice system,” she said. “There’s a lot of interest in getting data which can tell [legislators] where those disparities are coming from.”

The webinar was the fourth in a series of five programs for journalists exploring the prospects for youth justice reform. The webinar was organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

The final program in the series is scheduled for Thursday Nov. 12. Support for the series comes from the Tow Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Further information about the series is available here.

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