WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thirteen advocates and professionals from around the country who serve as advisors to the federal office for juvenile justice met for two days last week in Washington, D.C., to share information on reforms and funding at the state and federal levels. The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, which normally meets online every few months, gathered face-to-face for the first time in a year. Its last online meeting occurred Aug. 10.
Some of the reforms the committee discussed lie within the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention itself. Melodee Hanes, the acting office administrator, told committee members on the opening day of the meeting that a structural reorganization of her office, which has been in the works for months, would be announced soon.
When I first began practicing in juvenile delinquency court in North Carolina eight years ago, I was shocked to discover that the maximum age of jurisdiction is 15. This means if you are 16 or 17 and charged with a criminal offense, you are automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. There are no exceptions, no possibility of waiving the rule, and no second chances. So, when a 10th grader pushes another student in the hallway of a school that has a zero-tolerance policy, the 16-year-old will face misdemeanor assault charges in criminal district court. Likewise, a 17-year-old prosecuted for stealing a bike from a neighbor’s garage would face charges of breaking and entering as well as larceny.
CHICAGO-Fears that a generation of menacing adolescents would stalk cities and kill at will never came to pass, and it appears states have gotten the message. Legislators are now relaxing harsh laws against minors enacted in the late 1980s and 1990s, according to a report out Tuesday. The study found children lack the mental capacity to commit crimes as adults. States have also raised the age at which juveniles may transfer to adult courts, and they now recognize most minors involved in crimes have some type of mental illness. But the racial disparities plaguing the juvenile justice system were among the most telling findings, with statistics heavily skewed against blacks and Hispanics.
State Senator Renee Unterman of Buford already has the distinction of being the only female Republican in a male-dominated Senate, but she really became a standout during the last legislative session when she introduced a bill that asserted that young prostitutes in Georgia should be deemed victims, not criminals. In fact, she set off a firestorm of controversy with SB304, which declared that boys and girls under the age of 16 shouldn’t be charged with prostitution, but instead diverted to treatment or therapy. Child welfare advocates championed the move as a step in the right direction for sexually exploited young people in Georgia. Opponents, however, accused Unterman, of attempting to “decriminalize” prostitution. The age of sexual consent in Georgia only seemed to complicate the issue further.