Juvenile Justice Bridges Right, Left

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A conservative think tank in Texas and the ACLU may seem to have little in common. But they and other conservative, liberal and nonpartisan groups are working — successfully — on juvenile justice law changes that are putting minors firmly in juvenile court, out of incarceration with adults and in community-based rehabilitation.

“There’s a great opportunity for collaboration across the aisle on this issue,” said Marc Levin, senior policy advisor at Right on Crime.

The Right on Crime initiative started in 2010 inside Austin’s Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank.  Right on Crime evaluates adult and juvenile corrections reforms through a lens of effectiveness and cost savings and promotes its findings in other states.  For the last few years, as state revenues shrink and budgets must be slashed, the Texans’ money-saving ideas are catching more ears.

In 2010, TPPF’s largest donor was the Pew Charitable Trusts, to the tune of more than $350,000, according to tax records the IRS failed to redact before release. The conservatives of Koch Industries were also on the list, as was, further down at $15,000, the GEO Group, a private prison firm.

Texas data, Right on Crime says, makes a case for diversion or supervision programs for youth instead of incarceration, when appropriate. They also say it costs Texas $270 per day to incarcerate a juvenile, compared to $7 to $73 per day for diversion or supervision. Besides the money, in-community programs also keep youths from mingling with more serious offenders and perhaps, picking up the criminal trade.

In Colorado, Right on Crime, in partnership with Independence Institute, a fellow free-market think tank, have argued that minors are better served and have a better chance at rehabilitation if judges instead of prosecutors make the decision of adjudication in adult or juvenile court.  The Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, a nonpartisan group which aims to ensure effective counsel for all juvenile defendants, argued for such policy too. In part due to efforts by all three and others, a new Colorado law places new limits on “direct files” — automatically assigning certain juveniles to adult courts.

Ideas like in-community rehabilitation and defaulting minors into juvenile courts sound familiar to assuredly non-conservative groups.

“For the first time I think really in 40 years of tough-on-crime policymaking, there is a depoliticized space, a space that really is centered around pushing data-driven policies,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the ACLU. She called the policies more effective at protecting public safety, and more fair, rational and cost-effective.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work with conservative groups, including Right on Crime, in the adult criminal incarceration” context, said Gupta, and as Right on Crime does more work on juvenile justice, the two will cooperate there.

“We don’t always agree with them [liberals],” said Levin. “Sometimes our scopes are a little bit different. For example, we don’t generally deal much with conditions of confinement … or excessive use of force.”

Indeed, conservatives emphasize cost-effectiveness much more than the ACLU. But, said Gupta, the bottom line is a common goal: “I think it’s been very important to have the addition of Right on Crime into this work.”

Besides the data and policy research in Right on Crime’s arsenal, they also have sterling conservative credentials that shield lawmakers from accusations of being soft on crime.

Levin said that the “messaging” can be different among members of a juvenile justice coalition.  “We really emphasize holding offenders accountable … and we really emphasize restitution for victims and community service.”

For example, he mentioned a case of a juvenile who stole a television. The boy’s consequences were service restitution: to cut the victim’s lawn for some amount of time.

“Putting someone behind bars isn’t always necessarily the best way to hold them accountable,” Levin said.

“I think ultimately the bottom line in juvenile justice policy discussions is the evidence, what works,” Levin said. “Whether you’re a liberal policy maker or a conservative policy maker, you want less crime.”

What to do with the cost savings may split conservatives and liberals, Levin pointed out, adding that TPPF favors tax reductions.

Gupta hopes conservative lawmakers stick with the same data-driven policies on juvenile justice even after state revenues begin to rise.

Levin doesn’t see conservative states swinging back to a lock-em-up solution when the economy improves. There will be other fiscal pressures, he said, and conservatives will want to cut taxes.

Next year, Levin expects to work on Right on Crime proposals for different issues in several states. Kentucky, Levin said, over-incarcerates status offenders. And Wyoming inappropriately locks up juveniles with adults and keeps poor records, he said. Florida, he added, has some 1,000 excess juvenile beds that need to be terminated, but most are privatized and there are “a lot of people who are worried about their ox being gored.” But Right on Crime advocates a more “efficient” and streamlined system, and to close the facilities that are least effective, Levin said.


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