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New approach to juvenile justice: In states such as South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, reforms reduce reliance on incarceration, invest in proven interventions

by Ilene Grossman ~ May 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
A year ago, officials from all three branches of South Dakota government began taking a close, critical look at the state’s juvenile justice system. The working group didn’t like what it saw.
“What we found is that South Dakota was an outlier nationally,” Sen. Alan Solano says. “While juvenile commitments were declining,” he adds, “South Dakota had the second-highest incarceration rate in the country in 2011, a rate of 385 youth per 100,000.”
Further, that high commitment rate was not connected to a correspondingly high rate of violent crime, and South Dakota’s juvenile offenders were staying longer in out-of-home placements than they had in the past.
Those placements were costly (anywhere from $41,000 to $144,000 per bed); were often for misdemeanors, probation violations and status offenses (such as truancy and underage drinking); and were not necessarily effective in treating young people (community-based supervision tends to yield better results).
The state needed to do better, the working group concluded. With this year’s passage of SB 73, lawmakers believe they have taken a big step forward, one that will save taxpayer dollars, reduce recidivism and improve long-term outcomes for young people.
These same goals are driving proposed reforms of juvenile justice systems in other states as well. Using evidence of what has proven to work and not work in supervising and treating young offenders, states are reshaping their systems, in part by relying less on confinement.
“There is increasing recognition from the research that the effects of incarceration have not been particularly positive,” notes Josh Weber, director of the juvenile justice program at The Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Instead, many nonviolent offenders do better in a community setting, and are more likely to reoffend if incarcerated. Juvenile incarceration rates have, in fact, dropped sharply in many states over the past 15 years.
Part of that decline is due to a drop in the number of violent crimes being committed by juveniles, but a shift in public policy has contributed to this incarceration trend as well — namely, a decision not to commit low-risk juvenile offenders to state facilities.

Five years of reform in Nebraska
Nebraska’s reforms began in 2010, in part because the state had the nation’s fourth-highest rate of incarceration. And a large number of young offenders were being tried in adult, rather than juvenile, courts.
“Besides helping kids, these efforts are preventive maintenance,” Nebraska Sen. Bob Krist says about the state’s new laws. “In the long run, if we keep creating criminals in the juvenile justice system, our corrections system will blow up.”
As a first step, Nebraska legislators passed a measure requiring that youths be placed in the least restrictive situation that their offense would allow. At the same time, the Unicameral Legislature increased funding for a violence-prevention fund in local communities.
Then, in 2013, lawmakers expanded a successful pilot project between the state’s probation and health and human services departments. The goal: Keep young offenders in their homes and out of detention facilities or group homes, and provide them with greater access to services (such as substance-abuse treatment and behavioral health counseling) as an alternative to incarceration.
“We created a system where one person, rather than two or three or four people, is connected with a child’s case, and that person can deal with the child and family in real time,” Krist explains.
Prior to this change, he says, these young people could have had a probation officer and caseworkers from several social-service agencies. Jeanne Brandner, deputy administrator of Nebraska’s Office of Probation Administration, says this change has enabled the state do a better job of helping its young people.
“It is better to keep kids who are either in the juvenile justice or child welfare system, and are in danger of crossing over into the other system, in the one they are already in,” she adds. “They won’t have multiple people … trying to coordinate their care.”
Also under this 2013 legislation, before a juvenile is committed to a residential center, all local community-service options must first be reviewed and exhausted. Finally, the bill allocated more dollars for local governments to provide evidence-based treatment. By the following year, 11 new diversion programs had been created throughout Nebraska.
This year, Krist co-sponsored legislation (LB 500) calling for the state to seek a federal Medicaid waiver so that some juveniles on probation could receive certain proven, intensive therapies. A Nebraska-based foundation would cover the costs for training therapists.
‘Far too much recidivism’
As in Nebraska and South Dakota, recent reforms in Kansas have been driven in part by lawmakers taking a critical, comparative look at their juvenile systems.
“It became abundantly clear that we had some major shortcomings in our system,” says Rep. John Rubin, chair of the Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “There was far too much recidivism, much worse than national averages. Other states were using a more modern, evidence-based approach.
“And our incarceration level was too high. Most children are better off being treated in the community.”
Kansas is now requiring that risk-assessment tools be used to determine the likelihood of a youth reoffending. These tools help guide decisions on how to supervise and treat each juvenile offender.
“We want the least restrictive situation possible for juveniles, commensurate with public safety,” Rubin says. “You can’t do that without a risk assessment.”
Last year, too, legislators created a lower level of offense in their sentencing procedures for juveniles. The new category is for young people whose offense was not a risk to public safety (a status offense, for example). As a result of the statutory change, these offenders will no longer be incarcerated unless a judge finds a compelling reason to do so.
Rubin hopes to pass legislation next year that will prevent youths who have committed status offenses or misdemeanors from ever being sentenced to a correctional facility.
“The surest way to take a youthful offender who has committed a relatively minor offense and turn them into a hardened criminal is to place them with hardened criminals, he says.
More money for diversion programs
In South Dakota, if the state’s projections hold true, the Legislature’s actions this year will truly reshape the juvenile justice system. By 2020, the number of youths in residential facilities is expected to drop by 50 percent, while the number of juveniles on probation will fall by nearly 30 percent.
At the heart of this year’s reforms is a push to get more youths diverted from the court system and to community-based programs.
Under SB 73, the state will provide new financial incentives ($250 per child) to counties for these diversion programs. This will keep youths in need of supervision, rather than incarceration (lower-risk, low-level offenders), from going more deeply into the system.
Under the legislation, only the most serious juvenile offenders will be committed to residential facilities.
“A second goal,” Solano says, “was to develop a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach and increase access to high quality, community-based programs.”
These programs will provide the type of support that leads to better long-term outcomes for young people — for example, addressing substance abuse, behavioral issues or family problems. Funding for these programs will come from justice reinvestment: using some of the money saved by keeping more young people out of state facilities.
“The more we can do earlier [to help the juveniles], the greater impact we believe we can have,” Solano says.
To track the progress of the reforms under SB 73, South Dakota created an oversight body composed of leaders from all three branches of government.



Q&A with Josh Weber, director of CSG Justice Center's juvenile justice program

Since being established in 2006, The Council of State Governments Justice Center has helped policymakers across the country improve their criminal-justice systems. Experts at the center work with all three branches of government to develop evidence-based strategies to increase public safety and strengthen communities.
For states wanting to improve prisoner re-entry policies, reduce recidivism or invest their justice dollars more wisely, for example, the center has helped legislators develop data-driven policy solutions.
The center is now putting a greater emphasis on juvenile justice reform.
In a recent CSG Midwest interview, Josh Weber, director of the center’s juvenile justice program, discussed how states can improve outcomes for young people, while also reducing the system’s costs for states and their local communities. Here are excerpts from the interview.


Q: Why has the CSG Justice Center now turned some of its attention to helping strengthen states’ juvenile justice systems?
A: The Justice Center Board [made up of legislators, judges, law enforcement officers and others] was well aware of the work we had done in criminal justice, and it wanted to see if we could improve outcomes in the juvenile justice system.
In some ways, the juvenile justice systems had already made dramatic progress over the last decade. States had dramatically decreased incarceration rates. There were lots of positive trends, such as diverting lower-risk youths to the community. But there was less attention being paid to the recidivism rate, both for youths on community supervision and for incarcerated kids who were being reintegrated into the community.
Within the last year or two, the Justice Center has produced a number of publications to help states improve outcomes for youth in contact with the juvenile justice system. The program works with a diverse array of states (including Kansas and Nebraska in the Midwest) and counties through the National Reentry Resource Center.


Q: What factors should state policymakers consider as they review their systems?
A: Data collection and analysis need to be improved. They also should consider reducing the population of youth in confinement, which has cost implications. State policymakers also want to position youth for long-term success. This includes making sure they have good educational outcomes, which can set them up for meaningful employment later on.
Q: What does the research show about what a successful juvenile justice system should look like?
A: First, make supervision and service decisions based on the youth’s risk to reoffend. For youth at low risk to reoffend, the research has shown that the best thing you can do is to leave them alone in most cases. They may need services from systems other than the juvenile justice system (for example, mental health or substance-abuse treatment), but doing much more than that may do more harm than good. You don’t want to mix them with higher-risk offenders.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, reserve the system, and its span of services, to youth who are a higher risk to reoffend. Limit confinement in general, but if you are going to use it, limit it to that population. If states target the services to those most in need, they will get the most bang for their buck.
Q: How do you determine which young people are at a greater or lesser risk of reoffending?
A: Use validated assessment tools to help predict risk to reoffend. These tools also help identify what is driving delinquent behavior, which can allow for the targeting of services to address those needs.
It’s important to then have services that actually address those needs. The research shows that services that have a punitive approach — those based on discipline, like a boot camp, or are authoritarian — don’t really work.
Services that focus on positive development, like family-based therapy or cognitive behavior therapy, have proven to be the most effective. Then hold those service providers accountable by tracking outcomes. Research has also shown that youth in the deeper end of the system have significant mental health and substance-abuse needs, and they also have education challenges. Also, up to two-thirds have some involvement in the child welfare system. So in order to address these needs, the juvenile justice system needs to partner with [education and child-welfare] systems to best address youth needs.
Q: How can states use the research that has been done about young people and brain development?
A: Youths are biologically and neurologically different from adults. They take more risks. They don’t think about the long-term consequences of their actions, so you need to work with them in that context. That means working with families is critical. Also, supervision should be less focused on punitive measures and more focused on promoting positive behaviors, and there should be a continuum of responses that are appropriate when juveniles commit a technical violation of their probation or parole.
For example, don’t immediately incarcerate a youth who breaks curfew. Make sure the reaction fits the offense.

Q: What impact does incarceration have on juveniles?
A: There is increasing recognition from the research that the effects of juvenile incarceration have not been particularly positive. The recidivism rate for youths who have been incarcerated can be quite high. There is also some research, although not a great deal yet, showing that for youth who stay longer in facilities, there is a point of diminishing return: Long stays can lead to higher rates of recidivism.


Q: What are some of the consistent problems you see with state juvenile justice systems?
A: A state can have some of the best policies, supported by research, but if they are not implemented the way they are supposed to, then they will not be successful. This may require the legislature to have more direct oversight over funding and policies.
Data collection seems to be a problem for states as well. Sometimes responsibilities cross branches of government or state and local lines, so tracking outcomes across the different systems can be difficult. Most states do not have a centralized data system, and it is important to have that to track youth throughout the system. Finally, there is not always coordination across states’ different service systems, since they work across populations.

Q: What is the role of all three branches of state government in reforming juvenile justice systems?
A: It is critical that everyone shares the same vision. Focus on a statewide plan that everyone — all three branches — buys into. It is also important to provide judges with good data, so they know what kinds of placements will work and which ones won’t.