Juvenile Justice

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A look at best practices in juvenile justice with Beth Rosenburg of Children’s Action Alliance and Elisabeth Donahue, Executive Director of “The Future of the Children”, a joint project of the Woodrow Wilson Schoolf for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.

Ted Simons: In the mid 1990s, there was a strong reaction to juvenile crime. The result in Arizona was an adult sentencing law for under-aged felony offenders. But are such laws the best way to deal with juvenile crime? Here to talk about juvenile justice and three bills introduced in the legislature regarding the issue are Beth Rosenburg of children's action alliance, and Elisabeth Donahue, executive director of "the future of the children," a joint project of the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. Thank you both for joining us.

Beth Rosenburg: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Let's get to the bills first. One clarifies the age of a kid who could be prosecuted as an adult.

Beth Rosenburg: That's right.

Ted Simons: How does this change?

Beth Rosenburg: In the 1996 ballot initiative that passed it says kids aged 15 or older who commit murder, rape, armed robbery, should be automatically tried as adults, no questions asked and gave the legislature some authority to define what the violence offense. And then in 1997, the legislature did implementing legislation and they added a whole range of other crimes that -- that kids could be prosecuted as adults on the sole discretion of the county attorney. And for that, that was age 14 and above. So went down from 15 to 14. But the law is not clear. The law is clear as to whether that's the age when the child is charged with an offense or the age at the time the child is actually allegedly commits the offense. So some youth, like we have the St. Johns case in northern Arizona, the eight-year-old, there was talk to waiting until that child was 15 to charge them as an adult. We want to clarify the law and say it's the age of the time of the offense and we believe that was the intent of the legislation to begin with.

Ted Simons: Another law wants a judge and not a prosecutor to be the one who decides whether or not a case goes back to juvenile court. Is that the idea with that one?

Beth Rosenburg: That one, what we call in jargon reverse remand and right now what happens now is that the county attorney in the discretionary cases which cases could be charged in adult court and nobody else reviews it. Just the county attorney. In Maricopa County, they decide that within 24 to 48 hours. They're not looking at the whole child, the community circumstances, the family or the history. For that offense, what we can't do is have -- and we're allowing that -- three years ago we passed a law saying if you're a youthful sex offender around charged in adult court, you can ask the court to review your case to see whether it should return to the criminal court. We want that to be expanded to all discretionary cases that go to adult court.

Ted Simons: What I'm hearing here as an overriding element to this, kids should not necessarily be in adult court for certain instances?

Elisabeth Donahue: Correct, a lot of the research we found in the future of children is based on newly emerging brain science on a developmental model of adolescence. Everyone knows they're quite different from adults and heavily influenced by peers and spontaneous and don't think ahead and terrible at risk-benefit analysis and so oftentimes what we hope to deter crime with a punitive model -- you're going to go to jail if you commit this crime -- doesn't work with an adolescent offender because they're in the moment. That's not to say they shouldn't be held accountable for those crimes. But the research is showing that putting these kids into the adult system not only doesn't rehabilitate them. In fact, kids come out of the adult system, they're much more likely to reoffend. And it's much more expensive to house a kid in an adult prison than treat them in a community situation and keep them in the juvenile justice system. A lot of the kids going to the adult systems are not murderers. They're not violent offenders. And they're being sent in a much bigger way than prior to '90s when this was enacted.

Ted Simons: I know research has been done on adolescents and how they're a different person.

Elisabeth Donahue: Right.

Ted Simons: Is that showing different ways in which -- obviously, deterrence is one thing, but once the act is committed you have a whole lifetime to worry about. Is the research showing anything in which things can be reformed or changed?

Elisabeth Donahue: I think we should send far fewer kids to the adult system. What the research shows is really in terms of rehabilitation models programs that work with the family, that work with the youth in the family and really try to get the youth to understand what they've done, have repercussions and turn their lives around is much more effective than putting them in an adult system where their education is interrupted and they're basically going to school to learn how to be a criminal. They're learning things in this adult jail, that if they weren't going to be a chronic offender beforehand, chances are they will be coming out cause they're learning a lot of things we wish they didn't know about.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned chronic offender and the third bill we didn't get to before. That redefines what a chronic offender is.

Beth Rosenburg: Basically we have a law that says three strikes you're out. Two adjudications in juvenile court and the third alleged felony, you're automatically sent to the adult court and we believe that the public understood in the 1996 -- we're talking about a serious juvenile offender. Murderers and rapists. You can have three non-violent, non-person kind of felony offenses -- you stole a car, shoplifted -- and you could be sent to adult court. We're not saying these kids should not be sent to adult court. We're saying it should be a judicial decision. The county attorney can still file, ask the juvenile court to take a look at that. All of these cases, the juvenile court can make the decision. We want it to be a broader decision making in terms of who looks at the child, who looks at the history, looks at what happened, the juvenile system versus the criminal justice system. Because we care very much about community safety. That's number one for us. We believe that some youth should be in the adult system but we believe there's a broader number of kids going. We have over 600 kid who go to the adult system a year and we think some of those kids don't belong there.

Ted Simons: Are there tangible results in assessing future behavior? As you alluded to, that's key theory, is it not? And is research saying we've got a good idea that kid A is going this direction but kid B is not.

Elisabeth Donahue: There are assessment methods which are highlighted in the volume which sets up a model for using both actuarial and clinical approaches to try to figure out in a certain case where you think the child is going to go. In terms of their future, the chance that they'll reoffend, the chance they'll become a lifetime offender and whatnot. They're not perfect models but valuable tools. The other things that I think is important to know, the models that have been proven successful, that are more community-oriented, that keep the kid in the juvenile justice system costs a lot less than putting the kid in the adult system. Where really, a lot of rehabilitative services don't exist. In terms of looking at a lifetime youth offender, most grow out of their spontaneous, not thinking, peer-related, influenced behavior. But to put them into an adult prison, the chances that they will grow out of that are decreased.

Ted Simons: Is this the kind of thing it's going to be difficult to convince lawmakers that little Johnny is just going through a phase and when little Johnny steals your car it's a different story than when he steals a car.

Beth Rosenburg: I think it is going to be difficult to convince lawmakers but we did have a success three years ago on youthful sex offenders which you would think would be the most scariest to the community and parents and families, and we were finding that they were going into programs with adults and getting therapy with people who were very much sexually predators and learning things they shouldn't be learning. And that's when we got reverse remand for sex offenders and now we have age-approach treatment that's required and we want community safety and want programs both in the juvenile justice system and in the adult system, that are age and developmentally appropriate for those kids.

Ted Simons: If you could be king of the world and reform juvenile justice, what would the number one thing you do be?

Elisabeth Donahue: I would put more money into community-based programs and I would certainly transfer far fewer kids up to the system and I would really look at right now, when you look at the disparate treatment of minority kids compared to white kids, it's rampant in the juvenile justice system at every stage of contact. I would put a lot more resources into prevention and not just prevention services for juvenile justice -- juveniles, I would start when they're little. So many of these problems come out of the families that are dysfunctional from the beginning and so really, to start with a youth who is 16 and try to enact reform then, doesn't make sense. We should be targeting at-risk families from day one.

Ted Simons: If you could rule the world, would that be along the same lines?

Beth Rosenburg: I certainly agree, and I think our problems today is economic and the state budget and all of the things being cut, some of the prevention services and diversion services and things that will help these children and families are being cut. It's not just juvenile justice services. It's mental health services, health services and all of those things that will impact these kids.

Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us.

Beth Rosenburg: Thank you very much.

Beth Rosenburg:Children's Action Alliance;Elisabeth Donahue:Executive Director, "The Future of the Children;"

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