Across the Nation, State Legislatures Focused on Children in 2012

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State legislatures across the United States have been busy this year with youth and juvenile justice-related legislation. While there have been some failures, such as the last-minute death in the Georgia General Assembly of a comprehensive juvenile code rewrite — a bill that many feared county governments couldn’t afford — other states are working on or have managed to pass significant measures.

A few of them are noted below.

Perhaps one of the biggest efforts is in California where Gov. Jerry Brown has announced plans to close all of his state’s remaining juvenile detention centers, transferring responsibility for the youth detained there to county parole departments and effectively eliminating the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Consequently, most juveniles in the system would be referred to rehabilitation programs in their home communities. If the plan is implemented California would be the first state to eliminate its juvenile justice system entirely, according to San Francisco’s Bay Citizen,

In other states, new measures were aimed at strengthening juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed two major juvenile justice reform bills on the heels of the 2008 “Cash for Kids” scandal involving two judges who received millions in kickbacks for wrongfully incarcerating many juveniles in for-profit detention centers.

“Four years ago, Pennsylvanians witnessed a scandal that shocked the conscience,” Corbett said at the bill signing. “Now, we are taking action to prevent future injustice against our children.”

The new laws bring Pennsylvania into compliance with a state Supreme Court ruling requiring all juveniles under 14 to have legal representation at all delinquency hearings. Additionally, judges will be required to state on the record their reasons for the disposition of each juvenile case along with the intended goals of the incarceration.

While Pennsylvania worked to protect the interests of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system, Wisconsin’s Legislature passed a measure giving authorities greater access to juvenile records usually kept secret to allow young people a chance to move beyond the indiscretions of their past. Last week, Gov. Scott Walker signed the new bill. According to WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio, the measure will give police greater access to information supporters of the law say will keep the public safe from young, violent offenders. In the past, a juvenile record would only show a referral to juvenile authorities and not the outcome of the case. The law is a response to the case of Markus Evans of Milwaukee whose crimes escalated from stabbing a teacher with a pencil when he was 7 to murdering a teenage girl walking home from school when he was 16.

“When we looked at the arrest histories, all we could see was that the kids were referred to juvenile authorities, so we didn’t know what the outcome was,” Mallory O’Brien, director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission told WUWM. “It could have been that they were issued a citation. It could have been nothing happened. It could have been that they were sent to the delinquency center. So that really was information that the officers on the street needed to have access to.”

Not all of the new legislation concerning youth was directly juvenile justice-related. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman signed five bills into law, all aimed at fixing a child welfare system that has lost the public’s confidence after an experiment with privatization. According to a report by the Associated Press, two of the new measures would lower caseloads for child service providers and require the state Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop plans to serve children more effectively, a move reinforced by the appointment of Thomas Pristow as director of the children and family services division of HHS. The remaining three bills provide for the creation of a state children’s commission, increased payments for foster care providers and the establishment of a web-based information system.

“Over the next six months, you will see action happen that looks at what the issues are and then resolves them,” Pristow told The Omaha World-Herald. “We will be at a much different place a year from now than we are today.”

Missouri lawmakers are still contemplating adding a new category to the state’s Amber Alert system created to notify the public of a child’s abduction and enlist their help in finding the missing child. Under the new measure, the Alert would also be activated if there were a fugitive at large, a change that some Missouri State Highway Patrol officers worry will cut into the alert’s effectiveness in child abduction cases, acccording to Kansas City’s KCTV 5.

Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Lowe told KCTV the goal is to “have as many eyes out there as possible to locate that individual.” But increasing the scope of the alert and increasing its use could lead to some people tuning it out.

“We don’t want to dilute that,” Lowe said. “We want the public to know that when that Amber Alert goes off that information is vitally important.”

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