More States Need to Halt Prosecution of Youth as Adults

This month marks one year since the passage of Proposition 57, a California ballot measure that prohibited district attorneys from filing charges against youth as young as 14 directly in adult criminal court through a practice known as “direct file.” The initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote, signaling strong popular support for curtailing prosecutorial authority and expanding access to the rehabilitative benefits of the juvenile justice system.

While juvenile courts are premised on rehabilitation and required to provide young people with education, mental health and other age-appropriate services, the adult criminal justice system offers no such guarantee. Youth placed in adult courtrooms are exposed to the trauma of stigmatizing, high-stakes proceedings and may face lengthy adult sentences devoid of rehabilitative opportunities. Furthermore, youth prosecuted and convicted as adults are saddled with lifelong criminal records, severely limiting access to education, housing and employment, and potentially impacting their right to vote or their immigration status.

Research supports the notion that adult court prosecution is fundamentally inappropriate for young people. Studies comparing youth tried in juvenile courts to those processed as adults find that criminal prosecution is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and elevated risk of rearrest after release. Though proponents of these policies claim they are necessary to deter serious crime, research has linked direct file, transfer and waiver policies to increased levels of youth violence.

Though the burden of these laws falls most heavily on youth relegated to criminal courts, the effects also filter into the juvenile justice system, disadvantaging young people who retain their status as juveniles. In states that permit prosecutors to exercise discretion over transfer petitions or the filing of adult charges, the very threat of criminal prosecution can be used to exact unfavorable plea agreements, exposing young people, unnecessarily, to additional juvenile justice system contact.

Fortunately, decadeslong reductions in youth crime have allowed the pendulum of juvenile justice policymaking to swing towards common-sense reforms that honor youthfulness and emphasize treatment over punishment. In California, Proposition 57 ensures that youth are no longer subject to unchecked prosecutorial authority and cannot be criminally prosecuted without first receiving a transfer hearing in juvenile court.

All California youth are now presumed suitable for the treatment and care of the juvenile court, and prosecutors carry the burden of proving otherwise. By law, California juvenile court judges must look beyond the seriousness of a young person’s offense and consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including their social history, mental health, level of participation in the offense and success with prior interventions, when determining whether they can be transferred to adult criminal court. By abolishing direct file and establishing a higher standard of proof for transferring youth to the adult criminal justice system, California is expected to prosecute many fewer youth as adults in the coming years.  

Several other states have introduced reforms aimed at correcting longstanding overreliance on punitive, criminal sanctions for young people. Recently, New York and North Carolina used their budget processes to expand the age bounds of their juvenile justice systems to ensure that 16- and 17-year-old youth can no longer be automatically placed in adult courtrooms.

In Indiana, state law now permits youth to be processed in juvenile court for any remaining lesser charges if they are tried and acquitted for a more serious offense in adult criminal court. This prevents prosecutors from gaining unfettered access to criminal prosecution through overcharging. In 2016, the Vermont Legislature granted original jurisdiction to the court’s Family Division in all youth misdemeanor cases and in select youth felony cases, ensuring that most young people are processed in juvenile rather than adult criminal court.

Though incremental, these reforms have the potential to lessen criminal justice system involvement for thousands of youth, bringing the U.S. one step closer to ending the unjust prosecution of youth as adults and delivering on the full rehabilitative promise of the juvenile justice system.

Misguided and reactionary policymaking eroded the core values and protections of the juvenile justice system throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet relics of these policies remain, contrasting starkly with current realities. State lawmakers must heed contemporary research, record-low rates of youth crime and increasing public support for progressive justice reforms, and act now to halt the inhumane treatment of youth as adults.

Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

“Crossover Youth”: The Intersection of Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice

Crossover youth is more than the latest buzzword in the often jargon-filled lexicon of juvenile justice. Instead, the term reflects a growing understanding of the dynamic between child abuse, neglect and delinquency. This population of young people has contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Addressing child welfare is challenging enough, let alone when joined with deeper problems of delinquency. Abused young people often carry scars of trauma and pain, which can inform delinquent behavior that leads to subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. However, the complex challenges and needs of crossover youth often prove too much for each system alone to address. Practitioners must find a reasonable solution that ameliorates these issues or crossover youth may re-enter the child welfare system or go on to commit more serious offenses. Instead, an integrated approach, which builds on each system’s unique strength, is the ideal approach.

Who are these young people?

The exact number is unknown, given the absence of rigorous data collection, although estimates range from 9 percent to 29 percent of those in the child welfare system. A recent webinar, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), detailed how a majority of these young people suffer from wide-ranging challenges, which include education difficulties, mental health issues and sexual abuse.

Another major contributing factor is that many suffer from placement instability. A recent study of dually involved youth in LA County found that 55 percent had been relocated between group homes and foster care placements three or more times during their lifetimes.

Why do crossover youth matter?

The crossover population represents a unique challenge for both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A 2001 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the likelihood of detention for foster youth awaiting trial for misdemeanors or minor felonies was 10 percent higher than non-foster care youth. Moreover, they frequently suffer amid a compartmentalization of system care and oversight. For example, juveniles who make contact with the justice system may lose access to welfare services and their respective case manager, resulting in a disruption to their therapeutic services.

The long-term consequences for crossover youth are significant with many suffering higher incidence of drug use and exacerbated mental illness. The aforementioned study of LA County also found that crossover youth have a higher recidivism rate than non-crossover youth, and more than 30 percent have new maltreatment referrals following their arrest. These young people may not only commit offenses as adults, but may well perpetuate the cycle of maltreatment as parents.

What can be done?

Fortunately, juvenile justice professionals are increasingly recognizing the unique situation of crossover youth and are developing system tools sensitive to the specifics of their problem. Law enforcement officials, judges, and child welfare practitioners are beginning to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of this unique population early enough to offset the substantial human and fiscal cost. In addition, reform-minded foundations and non-profits have initiated pilot technical assistance programs across the country, in the hopes of creating replicable best practices. The recent OJDDP webinar featured speakers advocating for multi-disciplinary teams to bridge the system-wide gap, an approach shared by others.

For example, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, at Georgetown University, developed The Crossover Youth Practice Model, which is currently used at 11 jurisdictions across the country. A central feature of the model is to encourage multi-agency collaboration across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such coordinated case management and supervision fosters family engagement and youth permanency. This directly addresses the instability that leads many young people from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In California, the Sierra Health Foundation, through their Positive Youth Justice Initiative, has also taken a lead in fostering county-level innovation to address this issue.

In the complicated world of juvenile justice, there is not always a clear distinction between young people in the child welfare system and those in the juvenile justice system. Abused and neglected young people come into contact with the justice system due to any number of contributing factors.  For each system to work best, they must first understand whom crossover youth are and develop necessary treatment and support models. This requires child welfare and juvenile justice departments to collaborate on best practices, streamlined case management and more effective data collection.

Such partnerships bring a sense of stability and continuity of care that crossover youth so often lack. Moreover, this represents a promising development in juvenile justice, where youth are recognized for their potential to succeed beyond a history of neglect and abuse.

Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)'s policy team and a Masters graduate in political science from San Francisco State University.  His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

Why Juvenile Justice Systems Need Local Data

Local application of juvenile justice policies vary widely and understanding these trends is of fundamental importance to policymaking. Governors, legislators, stakeholders, and public watchdogs all use data to inform their understanding of the impact of a proposed law, as well as the effectiveness of the currently implemented system. The results of juvenile justice policy are far-reaching; therefore, it is critical that accurate and relevant data inform policy decisions.

In California, 58 autonomous counties administer juvenile justice serving 99 percent of the state’s justice involved youth. The state’s role currently involves operating three dilapidated and isolated youth correctional facilities that house about 930 of California’s more high-need offenders. The state’s decentralized approach to governance has fostered local innovation within California, but it also created a need for increased local data-driven analyses.

County-level data reveals stark contrasts regarding historic county practices. Analyses showed many counties are strongly self-reliant, serving even their most serious youth offenders locally. On the other hand, several counties are heavily state-dependent, creating a disparate impact on youth statewide.  Through these data analyses, policymakers are able to ask, “if there have been successes in some counties, why not elsewhere?”

However, while county level data is useful, it must be accurate and relevant. Some counties have few resources to devote to data collection and duty officers are often required to input information into archaic systems without proper training or direction. As a result, counties will often only collect the minimum metrics mandated by statewide agencies. These statewide agencies are equally resource constrained and collect only what is required by statute, with minimal instruction or verification of data they are given. Thus, California’s juvenile justice data are held fragmented by several different statewide agencies, with minimal communication between them.

Variations and errors in data collection at the local level obfuscate important issues of policy impact. This has become even more apparent in California, following a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) investigation that found extensive errors in the direct filing dataset dating back to 2003. Prosecutors were granted the ability to direct file a youth in adult criminal court for commission of serious crimes in 2000. The issue of direct filing has continually been an issue in California and nationwide.

Policymakers and advocacy groups have been using the aggregate data on direct filing to inform policy decisions for years. For example, the Attorney General uses direct filing data to monitor the administration of juvenile justice in California. Several research institutions have relied on these data to conduct policy research. Prosecutors used these data as a basis for opposing closure of California’s youth correctional facilities. Yet, CJCJ’s analysis of historic county-level data revealed large discrepancies throughout the official dataset, resulting from erroneous reporting and insufficient metric definitions. These inaccuracies lead to misdirected policy research and a lack of clarity around policy decisions.

To pursue an efficient and humane juvenile justice system, policymakers must have insight into the current, historic, and proposed application of justice policies. This insight must extend beyond anecdotal observation and target the point of impact; that is, policy must be informed by visibility into daily operations of local jurisdictions. Statewide aggregate data analysis can only present a portion of the California juvenile justice story.

In a decentralized system, local practices are essential to understanding state policy. State agencies are the appropriate conduit for this information, being able to provide oversight and guidance to local jurisdictions while also consolidating the data to form a cohesive picture of statewide practices.

Increased Teen Driver Restrictions May Not be Working

A lot of debate exists about whether teen driving restrictions are successful, and a new nationwide study says graduated driver licensing programs placed on younger teens are merely shifting the dangers to older teens, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But then others still support a study published last year in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention that found the rate of fatal crashes to be lower and the accident rate for 18- and 19-year olds to be essentially the same.

For more than a decade, many states have enacted laws to restrict their newest teen drivers, such as restricting the hours when they can get behind the wheel and whom they can bring along as passengers, and public officials believed they were saving lives. Now, this new study published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests otherwise.

When the researchers examined data on more than 131,000 fatal crashes involving teen drivers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1986 and 2007, they found that the number of fatal crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers has fallen. But deadly accidents among 18-to-19-year-olds have risen by an almost equal amount.

Experts told the paper it's not clear why fatal crash rates are higher among older teens in states with stronger graduated driver licensing programs. But one possibility is that teens in these states may be waiting until they bypass the restrictions to get their licenses.

One solution, which is being tried in at least one state, may be to expand graduated driver licensing programs to include 18- and 19-year-olds who are getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Mike Males, a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, believes this solution is a “terrible idea.” He said it was inappropriate to impose such restrictions on legal adults and that the rules could disqualify them from holding certain jobs.

To get a clearer assessment of the graduated programs, researchers may need to dig into the data on individual state programs instead of grouping all states together, Susan P. Baker, a public health professor who has studied the graduated programs, but was not involved in either study, said.