ATLANTA — A major shift in public policy takes time, and the time for juvenile justice reform is now. As the 2008 Great Recession took hold, child advocates braced for reductions in services and programs in juvenile justice systems across the country. These systems were already felt to be under-resourced due to a lack of priority around juvenile justice funding. They also have been heavily criticized for a lack of progressive programming and concern for overall outcomes for young people. Advocates feared that the further constriction of resources would eliminate the effective or promising practices that remained, leaving no alternatives to detention. The fiscal crisis, however, has presented an unexpected opportunity for juvenile justice reform. State leaders and child advocates should seize this public policy moment.
Fundamentally, public policy is a reflection of community standards. Thus, system change requires first changing the underlying values framework. For nearly two decades, the trend in state juvenile justice policy has moved toward detention and punishment and away from rehabilitation. This trend was energized by a fear of the “superpredator,” a remorseless, dangerous, violent juvenile offender. The superpredator theory forecasted a surge in juvenile violence within the decade, and the socialization of that idea fueled a public policy agenda that led to tougher penalties for juvenile delinquents. The projection never came true, however. Instead, Juvenile Crime Index offenses decreased for a decade. In Georgia, the total juvenile arrest index has experienced a declined since 2008, as have the violent crime and property crime indices. Other states show similar trends.
This lived experience is supported by recent research findings on adolescent brain development that point to neurological bases for teenage impulsivity and susceptibility to peer influence. This data is beginning to inform strategies for how offenders in this age group are punished. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, observing a national consensus against the juvenile death penalty.
In subsequent cases decided in 2010 and 2012, the Court limited the use of life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. These cases recognize that kids — even those who do bad things — are developmentally different from adults. Now is the time for that view to gain a foothold in the public policy conversation.
During the tough-on-crime era, this view may not have been politically viable. But, the fiscal crisis has created an opportunity to recast competing social and political agendas to focus on strategies that are smarter on crime.
Georgia leaders were recently confronted by compelling data showing that the state is expending considerable resources confining offenders who are mostly at low-risk to re-offend, and further, that these expensive and restrictive interventions are not effective. More than half of all Georgia young people in the juvenile justice system recidivate; that is, they are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release. This narrative is not unique to Georgia, and states recognize the need to be more effective and more efficient with their limited resources. A broader set of goals must be satisfied, including those promoting public safety, accountability, fiscal responsibility and positive outcomes for young people. Thus, now is the ideal time to correct the public policy course of the last two decades by making smart investments in our youth.
Georgia’s governor recognized this opportunity and has made juvenile justice reform a signature issue. The state is poised to enact a comprehensive statutory reform package (the state House passed the legislation last week) that includes proposals to treat status offenders through a more service-oriented Children in Need of Services (CHINS) approach, separate felonies into two classes based on the severity of the offense to allow for differentiated sentencing, mandate use of standardized assessment tools, and require improved data collection. The bill also contains a fiscal incentive program to create community-based alternatives to detention.
Many other states serve as examples for how to use limited dollars more wisely. Most reform states are, in some way or another, reducing reliance on institutional placements and reinvesting the savings to support more effective community-based programs and services. Ohio, Illinois and California have adopted these fiscal realignment models. Several other states have focused on increasing dispositional options and improving conditions of confinement. Making smart investments in our young people is not a partisan issue, and the momentum for change is building.