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Proposed Budget Cuts Loom for Juvenile Justice Programs

Youth advocates are ringing the alarm bells at Congress’s proposed levels of funding for state programs that would prevent young people from being locked up for skipping school, keep young offenders from being held in adult prisons and reduce the disproportionate numbers of minority youth in jail.

Since 2002, the funds available for states to implement Title II of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act have been slashed by more than half from $88.8 million, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which brings together citizens and public officials who work on juvenile justice issues in every state.

Current funding levels for Title II -- whose four core requirements aim to protect young people from being unfairly confined in prison -- are at $40 million, according to figures released by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in April. The White House requested $70 million for the 2013 budgetary year, an amount unlikely to pass Congress.

If federal funds shrink further, states will have little incentive to meet federal guidelines for keeping juveniles out of the adult prison system, said Liz Ryan, president of the D.C.-based advocacy organization Campaign for Youth Justice.

“The less resources there are, the harder it is to implement the federal law,” Ryan said. “Eventually they may decide not to participate. And that’s what we’re afraid of, that states may walk away from this.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed $33 million for Title II funding under the JJDPA, and the Senate $55 million – “a wholly insufficient appropriation,” according to Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Both figures are far below the $80 million that the Campaign for Youth Justice and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice want Congress to appropriate for 56 states and territories for the 2013 fiscal year, which technically begins Oct. 1, 2012.

 “I do think we haven’t done as good a job at demonstrating the results and marketing the results of these problems, particularly how the (law’s) core requirements have been met,” Ryan said. “But I don’t think that’s why the funding has gone down.”

The funds represent “a relatively small federal investment,” so they don’t get the kind of Congressional attention they should, Ryan said.

Budgetary woes underlay much of the discussions at the annual conference held by Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C., last month. Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told a roomful of juvenile justice workers during her keynote address that her office’s budget had been halved in just the three years she had worked there.

“As unpleasant as some of these things are to talk about, I don’t have to tell you that these are very challenging times,” Hanes told her audience. “By all indications, funding is not going to come roaring out.”

But, Hanes said, state workers should not abandon hope. “We are going to stand with you as partners regardless of what the final funding bill is,” Hanes said. “If we need to learn new ways of doing business, we’ll do it and we’ll do it together.”

It’s unclear when Congress will finally pass a budget for this fiscal year. Hanes tried to turn that uncertainty into a cause for hope.

“A lot is going to happen between now and then,” Hanes said. “Anything can happen, trust me.”

Photo from the University of Minnesota.

Americans Believe in Treatment Over Incarceration for Youth, New Poll Finds

Photo by publik15 | Flickr.com

A majority of Americans favor rehabilitation and treatment of youth over incarceration, new national poll found. The survey, commissioned by the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), also found most Americans, 76 percent, believe youth should not automatically be sent to adult court. The poll was given to 1,000 U.S. adults.

"This public opinion research demonstrates Americans’ strong support for rehabilitation and treatment for court-involved youth, over incarceration and automatic prosecution in adult criminal court," stated CFYJ’s President and CEO Liz Ryan in a press release. "In light of this research, it is urgent that state officials accelerate youth justice reforms to reduce the incarceration of youth and prosecution in adult criminal court, and that Congress and the Administration reject deep cuts to juvenile justice funding."

Other highlights from the poll include:

  • A large majority of the public, 89 percent, would prefer youth to receive treatment, counseling and education.
  • Family is an important component in the juvenile justice system. Eighty-six percent of Americans favor involving the youth’s family in treatment while ensuring youth remains connected to their families.
  • Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe children should not be placed in adult prisons and jails.
  • Many Americans, 71 percent, favor providing more funds to public defenders to represent youth in court.
  • Eighty-one percent of Americans trust judges over prosecutors when determining if a child should be tried as an adult.

The full report can be read here. The survey also found that most Americans favor creating an independent community commission to ensure youth are protected by abuse. Further, 66 percent believe the juvenile justice system should reduce “ethnic and racial disparities in the system.

National Youth Justice Awareness Month Aims to Raise Issue of Juvenile Incarceration

national youth justice awareness month baltimore-3
Crowds gathered outside the Baltimore City Detention Center to rally support for the sixth annual National Youth Justice Awareness Month.

This October marks the fourth annual National Youth Justice Awareness Month. The month long program, sponsored by the Campaign for Youth Justice, involves activities and events across the United States that are centered on raising awareness and civic involvement with youth justice issues, primarily the incarceration of minors in the prison system of the nation.

National Youth Justice Awareness Month was created by Tracy McClard, a Missouri mother whose 17 year-old-son committed suicide while incarcerated in an adult prison. McClard, who now runs the organization Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice, said that she began the program as a means to raise awareness about the incarceration of minors in the United States.

“One reason why we started the National Youth Justice Awareness Month is because [the general public] doesn’t understand what it’s like to have a child in jail at all,” McClard said. “If you don’t know what it’s like, it’s real easy to approve of policies that you don’t understand or know the statistics about.”

Advocates for reform also point to statistics showing the number of youth in detention. This week, for example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a new report on juvenile detention in the United States. The report, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, details the enormous cost associated with detaining tens of thousands of young people each year.

“The United States leads in incarceration of everybody,” said Campaign for Youth Justice Media Director Eric Solomon. “There [are] a quarter million youth tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year in the United States. Just in the jail system, on any given day, there’s about 7,500 kids, pre-trial, in jails.”

Speaking from his Washington, D.C. office, Solomon said the lack of knowledge about the incarceration of minors in the nation goes beyond the scope of the general public to encompass policymakers as well.

“Some policymakers want to look tough on crime, but research shows another thing,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of seeing what research has been done and revisiting that again as we’re starting to see states across the country change their policies.”

McClard encouraged those in favor of adult sentencing for minors to examine recent data and statistics. “Look at the studies, everything that’s out there,” she said. “It doesn’t make society safer and it doesn’t make the public safer.”

“It damages families, it damages youth, and there is nothing positive about it,” McClard stated. “Everything about it is wrong.”

McClard, who is based in Missouri, said she is pleased with the growth in National Youth Justice Awareness Month involvement over the last four years. “It started off with one state, and four years later, we have 16 states. The goal is to have it in all 50 states, so it’s never too late [for volunteers and organizers] to jump on board.”

McClard said she hopes event attendees do more than simply participate in National Youth Justice Awareness Month activities. She said that while she would like to see people show support for the program, she believes it is far more important for participants to understand the realities of juvenile incarceration and youth justice policies in the United States.

Solomon said that the Campaign for Youth Justice is “thrilled” to be a part of the national effort.

“Just seeing all these states grow each year really shows that there is interest in this issue and that many people want to change things and reform policies,” Solomon said. “As it continues to grow each year, and the awareness continues to grow, we hope that the trends in each state can grow as well as far as changing their policies toward trying kids as adults.”

Photo credits: Campaign for Youth Justice

national youth justice awareness month baltimore-5

Mississippi Joins 38 Other States, Raises Juvenile Age to Eighteen

The Mississippi state sealAn amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.

Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”

Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.

“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”

Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.

It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.

Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.

Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.

Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.

States Reconsider Laws That Force Kids Into the Adult Justice System

A new study by the Campaign for Youth Justice reports that states across the country are reversing legislation that is pushing 250,000 kids a year into the adult justice system.

Following a spike in juvenile crime in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many states began lowering the age that children could be prosecuted as an adult.  According to the study, incarcerating youth in adult prisons, “puts them at higher risk of abuse, injury, and death while they are in the system, and makes it more likely that they will reoffend once they get out.”

Fifteen states have already completed the changes necessary to put fewer kids in adult prisons and nine more have legislation in the works.  Georgia (along with Colorado, Texas and Washington) has updated its mandatory minimum sentencing laws for juveniles.

However, Georgia is still holding on to a law that automatically transfers children aged 13 and older who commit one of the “seven deadly sins” to adult court.  Offenses include murder, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery,  voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery with a firearm.

Scared Straight! Graduate Plays Starring Role in Cold Case Crime

Angelo Speziale
Angelo Speziale

Angelo Speziale may be the most infamous graduate of Scared Straight! As a scrawny 16-year-old, he appeared in the original Scared Straight! documentary filmed at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison in 1978.  Now he’s back--serving 25-to-life in Rahway for the 1982 rape and murder of a teenage girl who lived next door to him.

Proponents of “Scared Straight” claim the program literally scares kids away from a life of crime.  In a follow-up show called Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, Speziale echoed this, claiming the experience changed him.  Apparently not enough.  He was arrested for shoplifting in 2005 and a DNA sample linked him to the 30-year-old cold case murder for which he was convicted in 2010.  A New Jersey law enforcement source confirms Angelo Speziale is the same person who appeared in both documentaries.

Here is a clip from Scared Straight: 20 Years Later which aired in 1998. Speziale appears at 8:45.

Speziale may become a poster child for groups opposing A&E’s new series Beyond Scared Straight, who say the program is ineffective and does more harm than good.

scared_straight_seriesA petition by the Campaign for Youth Justice is calling on A&E to yank Beyond Scared Straight off the cable channel. The petition says the show is promoting “the spread of a noxious program” and may be in violation of federal law, citing portions of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s  [OJJDP] Compliance Manual.

The petition is also asking that A&E do a better job of educating viewers on the shortcomings of the “Scared Straight” approach. The show follows at-risk kids as they are confronted by prison inmates who try to scare them into turning their lives around.  About 300 people have signed the online petition and they are not alone in opposing Beyond Scared Straight.

Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as “not only ineffective but potentially harmful” to the kids involved.  The op-ed appears in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson, from the Office of Justice Programs.  They say that, “when it comes to our children,” policymakers and parents should “follow evidence, not anecdote.”

As JJIE reported earlier this week, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is also calling on A&E to present the facts about Beyond Scared Straight. Last month juvenile crime experts told JJIE.org the show may generate more crime.

Courtesy of A&E
Courtesy of A&E

Beyond Scared Straight producer, Arnold Shapiro, has said he’s never read any of the studies, but claims the research is wrong.  He believes follow-ups are the best indicator of success with the “Scared Straight” approach and points to the success of kids from his original 1978 documentary, “Scared Straight!”  He’s apparently not talking about Angelo Speziale.

Amid this mounting criticism, one “Scared Straight” program in Rhode Island was suspended after administrators learned children as young as 8 were involved.  The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Family decided that Scared Straight techniques could be “traumatizing” for someone that young, according to the Providence Journal.

Despite what the experts say, public comments about the show appear mostly positive.  Comments posted at JJIE.org and A&E’s online discussion board run the gamut from desperate parents with troubled kids, willing to try anything, to get-tougher advocates who think the show doesn’t go far enough in confronting kids with the grim realities of prison.  Here’s a sample:

Dee: “I have a 16 year old nephew that is uncontrolable [sic] at this point.  He needs to see this first hand.”

Jalila Hood: “I am a deaf Single mom who raising my kids by myself they’re very disrespectful and out of control….i need that help especially for my son he will be 13 this year he has done shoplifting and hasn’t gotten caught yet?”

Foodcritic: “This show is too mild and they need to raise the stakes to wake these hoodlum kids up.”

JJIE staff actually tried to contact some of the most desperate-sounding authors by return email.  So far, no one has responded.

The controversy has not hurt Beyond Scared Straight.  The show set a ratings record for the A&E Network with 3.8 million viewers when it debuted on January 13.  “We could not be more proud to have undertaken this groundbreaking series,” Bob DeBitetto, President of A&E told the Hollywood Reporter, “and the audience response is extremely rewarding.

Teen Offender says Missouri Model has Humbled Him

He’s serving time for burglary and manslaughter in the Missouri Division of Youth Services. But instead of prison, he’s living in a small group home, and getting treatment.  Seventeen year old Carlos Dickson talks about how he got into trouble, and how he believes he can turn his life around with the help of counselors and his family - who are all part of his treatment program.

Dickson is interviewed by the Campaign for Youth Justice on blogtalkradio.com, an online radio program.  The Director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services also explains why he believes his system works.  Tim Decker describes it as a developmental approach that does not typecast kids. Decker urges professionals to understand teens, their mental health needs, learning disabilities and home situations.

Click here to listen to this podcast and others with a similar point of view at blogtalkradio.com

Photo shows The Northwest Regional Youth Center, an old elementary school that houses 30 teenagers.  Courtesy: gangwar.com

Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Facilities

Some alarming numbers about children who are sexually abused while in custody are contained in a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on May 10, 2010 from seven national advocacy groups.  The Children’s Defense Fund,  Campaign for Youth Justice,  Youth Law Center  and other groups created a report called Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Youth in Correctional Settings. Some of their recommendations:

  • Training in adolescent development for people who work or volunteer in youth facilities.
  • More direct supervision by trained adults instead of video surveillance.
  • Assessment standards and safety plans to keep vulnerable children safe.
  • Limiting harsh responses to consensual sex between residents, where it may not be abusive

The report contains current federal laws, plus information about the new Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act currently under review in Congress.  It also features research, questionnaires, and resolutions from the PTA, the American Bar Association, the NAACP and other organizations concerned about the risks of placing juveniles under 18 in adult prisons.

See more numbers here.

State Failed to Investigate Complaints in Juvenile Court Kickback Scandal

A state conduct board has conceded that it never investigated any of the complaints made against a disgraced former Luzerne County Court judge accused of taking kickbacks to place juveniles in for-profit detention centers.   The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board said it received four complaints about former Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan between 2004 and 2008, but failed to review any documents related to the complaints, according to the AP.

This new revelation is another chapter in what  many are calling the darkest day for the country's troubled juvenile-justice system. For more than four years earlier this decade, two senior county juvenile-court judges in northeastern Pennsylvania took kickbacks of $2.6 million in exchange for packing thousands of kids off to privately owned detention centers. Many of the kids had committed minor offenses and didn't have the benefit of a lawyer. A 14-year-old from Wilkes-Barre, for instance, spent a year in a Glen Mills detention facility for the offense of stealing loose change from unlocked cars to buy a bag of chips; he was only set free after public-interest lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the punishment. (See pictures of children behind bars.)
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