Feb 11 2013

Reforming Juvenile Justice in the Wake of Fiscal Stress and Newtown

by at 10:50 am under Uncategorized

By Julie Ryan (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

In a breakout session moderated by Liz Ryan, the President & CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, panelists Indivar Dutta-Gupta, a policy advisor for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Mike Thompson, the director of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments; and Toni Walker, a Connecticut State Representative from New Haven, all agreed that kids are a bipartisan issue. However, despite widespread support for improving the lives of at-risk youth, panelists agreed that budget cuts and harsh disciplinary measures currently pose very real threats to juvenile justice and the general well-being of American children.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, how do policymakers frame issues of juvenile justice? This tragedy has sparked heated national conversations about mental health, school safety, and gun control, all of which have high relevance to the juvenile justice field.

“How do you make sure that the best possible things come out of the momentum on those particular issues? If these things are going to happen, how do we do that constructively?” Thompson asked.

Representative Walker said the Newtown shooting roused a bipartisan mission in the legislature to protect children absolutely, but she added it was important not to rush to conclusions or have knee-jerk reactions. She mentioned she is on a task force for gun control and receives an average of 300 emails per day from NRA members.

“This conversation must be beneficial,” Representative Walker said. “Are we legislating a tragedy or are we legislating for the protection of our state?”

Thompson agreed, saying, “You have to take this slow. If you take some absolutist positions right at the outset, I think you make yourself irrelevant…It makes it more difficult to do something constructive down the road.”

Outside of this violent tragedy, all panel members had some reason for optimism. They spoke of some recent improvements in the juvenile justice system, saying the system has made significant changes during their careers.

“When I came into the juvenile justice field …it was very negative, very punitive,” Ms. Ryan said. “Almost every single state passed a law trying to convict juveniles as adults.

Yet in the past decade, reforms in the juvenile justice system have occurred all over the country from both Democratic and Republican policymakers.

“The whole system has been turned inside out; [it’s] dramatically smaller than it used to be,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen a dramatic decline in juveniles in correctional facilities between 2003 and 2010, cutting in half the number in secure confinement.”

Despite these improvements, panelists agreed there were many serious issues facing the juvenile justice system. Arrest rates among juveniles have not plummeted. School discipline is also proving to be severe, pushing kids out of school. Thompson cited one bipartisan study out of Texas that followed 900,000 students and found 60 percent of students experienced suspension or expulsion at least once between seventh and 12th grade.  This disciplinary action, he argued, dramatically increased these students’ likelihood of dropping out of school and entering the juvenile justice system.

The juvenile justice system also faces monetary problems; Dutta-Gupta spoke of significant budgetary pressures on programs for at-risk and vulnerable youth.

“There’s a growing expectation that programs for children in particular should be cost-effective,” Dutta-Gupta said. “Emphasize that we are already bearing significant cost for not taking action. When people realize there is a cost for not acting, they’re much more willing to come to the table sometimes.”

Dutta-Gupta argued programs for at-risk youth should be geared not only to the youngest children but also to older youths who tend to get left behind.

“There’s growing evidence that it’s literally never too late to help a child,” Dutta-Gupta said. “It’s probably always too soon to stop.”

 

Julie Ryan is an Associate Copy Editor for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

10 responses so far | Categories: Uncategorized

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