Are Youth of Color Benefiting From Juvenile Justice Reform?

Within the scope of juvenile justice literature, studies highlight the need for both immediate and long-term reform measures. This is clearly pertinent given the existence of racial disparity in terms of treatment and confinement among youth in the United States. In fact, federal and state-level funding has been provided to address this dilemma during the past 10 to 15 years.

There are a variety of programs and policies that facilitate juvenile justice reform efforts. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has instituted a number of effective measures designed to reduce the use of detention among youth. One example is the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which has demonstrated promising results in a number of states.

Congress is currently reviewing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, which passed the House in May and was sent to the Senate. Certain components of this act will address either directly or indirectly the need for and evaluation of juvenile justice reform measures.

North Carolina finally increased the age at which a juvenile may be certified as an adult. Despite this needed change, implementation of this law may not take effect until 2019. After reviewing the 2016 Juvenile Justice Report as provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I noticed the following reform findings:

Between 2010-16, there was a 56 percent decrease in youth sent to detention centers and 48 percent reduction of youth sent to development centers. A 28 percent reduction in school-based complaints and a 37 percent reduction in gang affiliation among youth were also identified.  

The report said that compared to their counterparts, youth of color are more than 2.5 times more likely to have complaints filed against them and 1.5 times more likely to experience secure detention.

To this end, racial disparity levels (or the ratio of blacks to whites in terms of treatment in the juvenile justice system) have either remained the same or in some cases actually increased. This begs the question: Are juvenile justice reform measures exclusively beneficial for youth who are not considered “youth of color”? If so, this is equivalent to the “whites only” segregation-based ideology of the Jim Crow era.

Ultimately, let’s not assume that progress in relation to juvenile justice reform efforts is applied in an equitable manner. Just as there is a racially disproportionate number of youth confined in the juvenile justice system, there is also a similar relationship with regard to those who avoid such treatment. From this standpoint, the abstract and practical concepts of juvenile justice reform must be re-examined.   

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine’s University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”

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.

State Trends Show Fewer Young People Tried As Adults, New Report Says

WASHINGTON — The number of young people locked into adult jails and prisons has plummeted nearly two-thirds since 2009 and the number automatically sent to adult courts for criminal trials has fallen by nearly half from 2007 to 2014, a new report says.

The numbers of youth tried as adults will likely fall even further by 2020, when four states — Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina and New York — fully implement reform laws passed over the last few years, said the new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

The statistics are unalloyed victory for juvenile justice reform advocates, said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign. “We have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “We have the majority of states not only changing one law but changing a lot of laws that treat kids like kids. That is something to celebrate.”

Once New York and North Carolina implement their laws, it will mark the first time since juvenile courts were created more than a century ago that no state will automatically try 16-year-olds as adults.

Nine states and the District of Columbia all passed laws limited or barring youthful offenders from being put in adult jails. New York and Oregon banned the practice outright this year.

Mistrett’s group will release the report formally this  morning in Washington. She’ll be joined by Olivia Brown, a teenager who was charged as an adult for a school fight, and senators from two states that have recently begun ambitious reform efforts of their own — Vermont’s Dick Sears, a Democrat, and South Carolina’s Gerald Malloy, a Democrat. Brown became for many the face of the campaign to “raise the age” of adult prosecution in North Carolina.

“The science we’re familiar with now tells us we continue to grow and age beyond childhood,” Malloy said. Quoting Frederick Douglass that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Malloy led efforts to pass state legislation to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction for most crimes from 17 to 18 years old. The legislation passed unanimously but must still be properly funded, by 2019, to take effect.

“There are a mountain of things we can do. They say we save children one child at a time,” Malloy said. The reform “also tells us a little bit about who we are as a people. The idea is to try to keep children from behind the fence.”

Sears’ Vermont was hailed by the Campaign for “a number of juvenile justice reforms over the last two years,” the report says. Children under 11 will be subject to juvenile court no matter what and only those older than 16 and charged with “the Big 12” felonies, such as murder, rape, etc., will face the prospect of an adult prosecution.

“Many of these kids, they carry around the collateral consequences of crime for the rest of their lives,” Sears said. “Now they’ll be given a second chance.”

For all the good news, Mistrett said she hopes no one thinks advocates can — or will — rest on their laurels. “We still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Among the challenges remaining are the often opaque rules about who gets to determine which children will be prosecuted as adults — and the often-shocking racial disparities that result from that opacity, Mistrett said. And the backlash politics of the Trump administration shows “just how easy it is to get back to the ‘get tough’ messaging,” she said.

Still, she is hopeful that the years of work by reform advocates has helped Americans reach a different level of consciousness about crime, punishment and young people.

“I think the general public is finally realizing that we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of the problem of crime,” Mistrett said.

Recent Rulings in 6 States Signal New Momentum for Ending Solitary for Juveniles

This story was written for The Marshall Project.

A nationwide shift toward abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles, which began to take shape in 2016 after former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal prisons, has surged ahead in recent months, with a half-dozen states either prohibiting or strictly limiting its use in their youth facilities.

In just the past year, a series of strongly worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated “punitive” solitary — holding youth in isolation for long periods of time rather than briefly for safety purposes — from the juvenile justice system. It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states, according to a July 2016 survey of policies in all states and the District of Columbia.

The developments suggest that long-term isolation is rapidly losing ground as an accepted practice within the juvenile corrections profession, and that a child-specific definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is now being established by courts across the country.

“These diverse courts seem to all at once be coming to the same conclusion: that solitary confinement of kids, who are our most vulnerable citizens, is unconstitutional,” said Amy Fettig, an expert on the issue for the ACLU.

But for youth advocates, ending juvenile solitary will take more work. Twenty-three percent of juvenile facilities nationally use some form of isolation, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The practice still has support from many, though not all, juvenile corrections administrators and officers, who are often underpaid, overworked and exhausted from double shifts and who believe solitary is the only disciplinary tool available to them without adequate mental health resources or alternative discipline options.

“The front-line staff, historically, they’ve been trained to use isolation as a means to control violent behavior and to keep themselves safe, and now we tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to do things,’” said Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. “So there is pushback, resistance, fear — a fear that changes like these will basically create unsafe conditions.”

But the momentum for juvenile solitary reform continues, with the latest development coming in July in Wisconsin, where a federal judge ruled that children at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prison complex — one of the largest juvenile facilities in the nation and long the subject of litigation — have an age-specific “right to rehabilitation” and that “solitary confinement violates it.”

Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said that while the agency has moved to implement these changes, “The merits of the case have not been decided.”

The injunction echoes one in March by another federal judge, in Tennessee, who blocked a county from placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And in February, a third federal judge, in yet another preliminary injunction, ordered a Syracuse, N.Y., jail to immediately stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary, citing the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The rulings also come in the wake of — and perhaps as a result of — two events involving juvenile solitary that drew national attention. The first was the death of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old from the Bronx who, after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 — a charge he denied — was held at the Rikers Island jail for three years, about two of which he spent in solitary. In 2015, after finally having his case dismissed and gaining his release, he hanged himself in his own home.

It was an image that, for many, drove home the total and long-term damage that isolation can do to young people, a group that depends more than most on social contact, educational stimulus, and a sense of purpose. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary, according to the Justice Department.

Soon after, in January 2016, Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and also wrote an op-ed article citing Browder’s case and calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” It was a largely symbolic move, given that only 26 juveniles were being held in the federal system at that time. But many advocates credit it as an act of policy leadership that has spurred the flurry of state and local reforms in the year since.

In the months following, both California and Colorado legislatively banned the use of punitive solitary in juvenile facilities for periods longer than four hours. (However, an ACLU report published this year notes that despite the new law, Colorado’s youth corrections department placed juveniles in solitary 2,240 times in 2016.) And both North Carolina and Connecticut in 2016 limited the solitary confinement of teenagers held in adult facilities, a different but related policy change. Since youth in adult prisons must by federal law be segregated from adult prisoners, they are often held in isolation for no reason other than to keep them separate.

Yet despite the recent spurt of reforms, according to a Juvenile Law Center report, states like Nebraska are still regularly holding youth in isolation. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill this year that would have restricted solitary for juveniles in adult prisons. She said it would have put guards in danger and hampered their flexibility to choose the best disciplinary options for the most violent inmates and also to keep youths fully separated from adults.

Even in the places where reform has been enacted, the work of translating a judge’s order or a new piece of legislation into actual, sustained culture change remains to be done, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center.

Indeed, many juvenile justice agencies, when challenged by litigation or legislation, simply rename solitary confinement using one of a variety of well-worn euphemisms: “room confinement,” “special management unit,” “restricted engagement,” “administrative detention,” “time out,” or even “reflection cottage.” Other agencies just reclassify the type of isolation as “nonpunitive” in their official statistics, calling it “temporary” or for the limited purpose of protecting the youth or those around him from harm.

“Anytime you’re talking about new or additional training,” said Dempsey, the executive director of the juvenile corrections administrators council, “it does cost money. It takes investment in alternative techniques, and that can be hard because in this line of work there’s always turnover and staff shortages.”

That’s why Dempsey’s organization and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which aims to end juvenile solitary within three years, provide on-the-ground technical assistance to state and local agencies that might otherwise be inclined toward superficial reform. Juvenile justice officials from Kansas, for instance, were brought to a successful facility in Massachusetts to observe alternatives to solitary for themselves, said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and a leader of the campaign.

To Fettig, the ACLU advocate, the cause could not be more urgent. “Imagine if you left a kid locked in a small room for 70 days. Well, that same action is taken by state governments all over this country!” she said. “When you do this to children, they do not come back.”

This story originally appeared in The Marshall Project.

Raise the Age Wave Stalled in Michigan, But Gathering Strength in Texas, North Carolina

Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is getting frustrated. Legislatures around the country are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults.

Wu’s frustration grew earlier this month when New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.

Rep. Gene Wu

“So many people here are saying, well, Texas is Texas, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the country is doing. But it does, and we should do better on this issue,” said Wu, a Houston attorney and Democratic lawmaker. He sponsored a bill earlier this year that he hopes will increase the state’s age of criminal responsibility to 18.

“Last year Texas was one of nine states, and when we filed this bill there were seven, and now six,” he said. “North Carolina is probably going to raise the age this year, and maybe Georgia, so we just keep falling behind, and there is no reason for it.”

Today, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate.

Similar legislative battles are playing out around the country. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. And last session, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote.

In each state, opponents argued that such measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could, potentially, leave dangerous youth on the street.

Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense and point to extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates. More importantly, they argue, such change provides true justice by giving kids picked up for marijuana or other minor crimes a chance to keep their futures from falling apart.

Wu said recidivism statistics showing that 30 percent of all youths charged as juveniles in Texas never commit another crime should make passage a logical choice. But, as a contentious debate during today’s vote made clear, the fight is far from over. Debate lasted more than an hour, with many voicing concerns about potential costs or increases in juvenile crime.

Those concerns are shared by state Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, according to Wu. Whitmire repeated those concerns in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune.

Sen. John Whitmire

Whitmire, who has the power to keep the measure from reaching a Senate floor vote, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In both Connecticut and Illinois, which raised the age in recent years, startup costs were far lower than forecast, and juvenile crime has dropped, according to a March study by the Justice Policy Institute and public records compiled by each state’s juvenile justice department. Connecticut’s switch has been so successful that it is considering raising the age of criminal responsibility to 21.

Rep. Duane Hall

North Carolina state Rep. Duane Hall hopes such success stories will help him in his third attempt to get his state to act. With New York’s vote, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults.

“Another dubious list for us to be last on,” said Hall, a Democrat who introduced similar measures in 2013 and 2015. Both passed the House, but could not even get a vote in the state Senate.

He’s more optimistic this time, buoyed by the nationwide trend, studies showing the benefits and growing enthusiasm of his colleagues.

“I think we are all in agreement that it is the right thing to do, first of all, but also that in the long term, and even the midterm, really, this is going to save the taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hall said. “In the past, the lone holdover of opposition was the sheriff’s association, but now they are on board, and that has made a difference.

Judge Mark Martin

“And North Carolina’s chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mark Martin, has made it a priority issue,” Hall said. “We are in a much better position today, but it will still come down to the budget.”

Estimates say the switch will cost the state about $15 million in the first year and slightly more in the second before cost savings kick in. Studies by the Justice Policy Institute and others have shown that nearly all states that have voted to raise the age experienced startup costs far lower than anticipated, in large part because of lower crime and recidivism rates.

Under North Carolina rules, the House bill must “cross over” to the Senate for consideration by April 27 to have a chance of being passed. There are provisions for it to be incorporated in the state budget process, but that is a longshot, said Hall’s legislative assistant, Gregory Lademann.

Earlier this year, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, only to see it die in the state Senate. The measure has been referred to a study committee for a full budget analysis, but that study is not scheduled to be finished until Jan. 1, 2018. Supporters hope to push a new bill long before then.

“We believe, and so do a lot of supporters of the legislation, that no matter what the study says, this is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure there is any reason to wait,” said Jason Smith, a policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. “It’s important to have the financial information, but we’re lagging the rest of the country.

“I think we and other groups have done a very good job trying to educate people about the benefits, both financial and in other ways,” Smith said. “We’ve hosted experts from Connecticut and Illinois to share their success stories and show the positive results, and that’s made a big difference.”

In Texas, Wu, the state representative, is hoping that the weight of evidence nationwide will push the state Senate to finally act.

“This isn’t a tough sell, because people understand, both Republican and Democrat, that we’ve gone from tough on crime to smart on crime, and that has to be the approach,” Wu said. “We have statistics showing that 30 percent of all children put into the juvenile system will not reoffend, will never become adult criminals.

“That is tangible. People can see and feel that and understand the savings when you aren’t going to have to keep putting more people into adult prisons, or take care of them when they can’t get a job or a home because they did something stupid as a 17-year-old kid.”

Wu said the most important reason to raise the age is because it is the moral thing to do for youth and society.

“I represent juveniles in my day job, I had one kid, 16, a good kid, suddenly started fighting at school and getting worse grades,” said Wu, a full-time attorney when the legislature is not in session. “In the juvenile system, he got on our state insurance, and saw a therapist, who found a problem and prescribed mild drugs. He went back to normal almost immediately, got good grades again and stopped fighting.

“His family was poor and didn’t have access to medical so they couldn’t give him the help he needed,” Wu said. “If he was charged as an adult, his life could have been over. Charging in juvenile court, we look at the whole family situation, and the goal is how do we help this kid, as opposed to how do we hammer him, which is what happens in adult court.”

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The Age of the Child

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.

Once in adult court, one of two general outcomes will result -- both of which are costly and counterproductive. Either these adolescents end up with criminal records that will likely follow them forever, harming their opportunities for higher education and gainful employment, or they will be given a “pass” because of their status as young offenders, in which case no one will take the time to address what caused the conduct. Under the first scenario, the criminal justice system has labeled and stigmatized a teenager without justification, and under the second, it has sent the message that the misbehavior is -- quite literally -- inconsequential.

Regardless, neither youth will have an opportunity to benefit from the resources and intensive supervision available in juvenile court, including psychological evaluations, drug and alcohol treatment and family counseling. Equally important, the parents of these teens will not be under the court’s jurisdiction and, therefore, will have no formal obligation to monitor and support their child during the pendency of the case or while the youth is on probation.

North Carolina has long been in the minority on this issue; the state is currently only one of two to set the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction at 15. Ten other states have set it at 16, while the vast majority -- 38 states -- have set it at 17. I have been involved over the years in an unsuccessful statewide campaign to raise the maximum age from 15 to 17 in North Carolina, speaking before the Legislature, writing academic articles on the law and publishing commentary in support of reform.

Although proposed legislation to raise the age was approved by a state House Judiciary committee, it languished in the House Appropriations Committee and is now in the hands of an “implementation commission,” all of which means that North Carolina’s 16- and 17- year-olds -- no matter the circumstances of the offense -- continue to be prosecuted in adult criminal court.

Given this perspective, I was heartened by the June report of the National Conference of State Legislatures that a “major trend” in juvenile justice policy in the past decade has been to expand the reach of the juvenile court by increasing the upper age of jurisdiction.

In 2007, for example, Connecticut raised the maximum age from 15 to 17, moving more than 10,000 new cases from criminal to juvenile court annually and returning about $3 in benefits for every $1 in costs; the Rhode Island Legislature rejected the governor’s recommendation to drop the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 16; and Missouri expanded juvenile court jurisdiction by including all those 18 and younger who are “status offenders” (alleged to be truant, runaways, or beyond the control of their parents). Similar reforms have been passed in Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Yet, ironies continue to abound. In August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill requiring those under 18 to have parental consent before they may pierce any body part other than their ears. Not only that, but consent must be given by the parent in writing at the time of the piercing and in the presence of the shop owner or technician. The bill was drafted in response to health and safety concerns, including research showing that 20 percent of all body piercings result in infection.  Such a law makes sense, of course, but it was passed in the only other state besides North Carolina that considers all 16- and 17- year-olds to be adults whenever they are charged with a criminal offense.

So, how to explain a scenario in which a parent’s written, in person consent is required before a 16-year-old can get her belly button pierced but the same youth can be criminally prosecuted as an adult if she steals a magazine from the local drug store?

It is, most likely, the function of political expedience.  Sixteen- and 17- year-olds who are charged with crimes do not comprise a powerful special interest group. The majority are children of color; they live in low-income neighborhoods, and their parents (for the most part) do not vote. In contrast, a significant number of 16- and 17-year-olds who get body piercings are white and from families of means. Their parents lobbied for the New York bill; the governor delivered.

I was not surprised to learn that North Carolina has a similar bill on the books. My hope is that a law to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction is not far behind.

Southern States Must Address Middle Grades Education Immediately, Report Warns

SREB Middle Grades Report 2011 cover image

2011 SREB Middle Grades Report - click to viewOnly about a quarter of rising ninth graders in the Southeastern United States will graduate high school on time, according to a new report from the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB).

“The middle grades are the make-or-break point of our K-12 public school system,” SREB President Dave Spence said in a press release. “If states are serious about raising graduation rates and preparing more students for postsecondary study, work has to begin now on the middle grades.”

The SREB is a non-profit, non-partisan organization established by regional governors and legislators to improve the public education system. The organization covers 16 states in the South and Southeast, working directly with state leaders, schools and educators to improve learning and student achievement from Pre-K to higher education.

The 16 states covered by the SREB have made “good” progress in early grades achievement in recent years according to the report, but a number still lag behind national standards.

Meanwhile, nation-wide, the likelihood an American teen will graduate from high school increased from 2006 to 2009 according to the 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on children’s well-being throughout the nation.

While some 1.1 million teens between the age of 16 and 19 didn’t graduate high school or failed to enroll in 2009, the number represents about a 50 percent decline in the dropout rate since 2000, according to Kids Count.

Today, students entering high school in the South have about a 50/50 shot of making it into some sort of postsecondary education by age 19, according to the SREB report, yet research has shown the job sectors expected to grow fastest in the coming years will require some sort of college degree or technical certificate.

Out of the SREB-district students that enrolled in a four-year college directly after high school in 2003, little more than half (53 percent) graduated within six years. Those enrolled in two-year colleges within the same period fared worse, with less than 20 percent graduating within three years.

According to 2009 figures, adults with a high school diploma earned an average of $8,500 a year more than adults without a diploma. Those with a bachelor’s degree average $26,000 more per year and tended to make healthier life choices, with a lower likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, according to the SREB report.

Fourteen other nations already exceed the United States in the percentage of 25- to 34- year-olds who have completed at least two years of education beyond high school, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It’s a worrying trend, even for President Obama. At a July 2011 roundtable, the president called education “the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs, but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.”

Throughout his presidency, Obama has pushed for a greater focus in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The SREB report supports these initiatives, calling for an increased focus on both STEM studies and student literacy.

“Focusing on the middle grades curriculum to emphasize STEM in every subject means that more students will master these skills than in the past,” the SREB report notes. “They provide a foundation for continuing study in high school and for nearly all careers.”

To improve the states' graduation rates and help prepare students for high school, postsecondary study and even a future career, the 28-page report “A New Mission for Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World” offers a detailed, six-point roadmap to improving educational outcomes in middle school and beyond:

  • Communicate and clarify the mission in every middle grades school.
  • Focus the middle grades curriculum on literacy and STEM disciplines.
  • Identify middle grades students likely to drop out of school and intervene with increased learning time and accelerated instructions.
  • Require middle grades students to complete individual academic and career plans.
  • Refocus professional development for middle grades teachers, counselors and school leaders.
  • Hold districts and schools accountable for meeting the middle grades mission

According to the report, the middle grades are pivotal years for shaping a student’s future.

A phenomenon known as the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” -- a chronic trend throughout the Southeast in which more students are enrolled in ninth grade than were enrolled in eighth grade due to being held back -- directly contributes to graduation rates, according to the report. Students cited not being on track to graduate with their peers as a critical factor in their decision to drop out of school.

Identifying those students at risk of dropping out or significantly lagging in the academic sector before they reach high school can reduce the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” and ultimately the dropout rate, the report suggests.

“What we do to engage today’s sixth-grade students will have serious consequences for the strength of the economy in SREB states and the nation for years to come,” said North Carolina’s Gov. Beverly Perdue, former chair of the SREB Middle Grades Commission that produced the report.

Maryland has also started to develop a STEM resource clearinghouse with the hopes of bolstering early academic achievement in the state and facilitating an exchange of expertise and resources. Three county school districts are already online, but once completed the clearinghouse will act as a gateway for teachers to share knowledge, resources, and exchange ideas with STEM professionals and other academics.

“Part of the challenge is to move Maryland students to become world-class in STEM,” said June Streckfus, Executive Director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and Co-Chair of the 2008 [Maryland] Stem Task Force . “In order to do that we took a two-prong approach,” focusing on motivating students to enroll in harder classes while fulfilling the needs of the teaching staff in areas like professional development and resource availability.

Findings from Montgomery County, Md., one of the few school districts in the nation to start putting the SREB’s vision for effective middle school practices to work, supports the work being done to improve education in the state. Data, based on student achievement in the district suggests students who pass Algebra I in the eighth grade are twice as likely to continue on to college.

In North Carolina, state legislators have pledged to create 10 anchor schools with a focus on STEM curriculum. Three high schools focused on STEM curriculum have already been established, with more expected in the coming years. Students choose whether to attend a STEM-centric high school while still taking middle school classes.

The anchor schools aim to lead the state’s efforts to develop exemplary STEM curricula while serving as centers for professional development and lead the state in innovative teaching and learning practices, according to the SREB report.

Infant Mortality Down in State with Historically High Rate

North Carolina saw its infant mortality rate drop in 2010 to its lowest level ever recorded, according to state officials.

Officials there say this is tremendous progress given that nearly 25 years ago the state had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation.

The recent figures show a continued decline from 7.9 deaths per 1,000 infants in 2009 to 7 per 1,000 in 2010.

Speaking to the Associated Press, the state’s Health Director Dr. Jeff Engle said the fall off in infant mortality was a “direct result of long-term, sustained investments in promising to reduce infant deaths and eliminate disparities in birth outcomes.”

Engle attributed much of the decline to a state program called Healthy Beginnings, which promotes safe child rearing practices.

North Carolina, the AP points out, is now very close to the national average of 6.8 percent.

Some advocates in the state warn, however, that looming budget cuts could reverse the trend.

The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show Washington, D.C. with this highest infant mortality rate at 12.8, followed by Mississippi at 10.6. Utah and Washington state had the lowest with 4.9.

States Respond to Budget Shortfalls with Hodgepodge of Juvenile Justice Cuts

Around the nation, states continue to grapple with the reality of budget shortfalls with a hodgepodge of cuts to various programs, including juvenile justice.


North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is being forced to cut spending by 10 percent while eliminating roughly 275 positions, a 15 percent decrease in work force, under the new FY 2012 budget.

Also gone are 75 beds from the state’s seven youth development centers, raising concerns that serious offenders may end up back on the streets to make room for new juveniles entering the facilities.


Alabama’s Department of Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention has a FY 2012 budget a little more than half that of FY 2011. The department saw a 74 percent drop in general state funding and significant cuts from the federal-level.

“I don’t see the system being able to recover in my working lifetime,” said DCANP Director Kelly Parris-Barnes. “When you take the community level programs out you don’t have the capacity at the state level to do it.”

Not a direct service provider themselves, the DCANP allocates funds for community-based programs around the state. Of the 174 programs the department funded in FY 2011, just 101 are slated for FY 2012, according to Deputy Director Greg Smith.


On the surface, Idaho’s Department of Juvenile Corrections has seen an increase in funding heading into FY 2011-2012. The budget has increased, said Chief Fiscal Officer Scott Johnson, but the department also absorbed the now defunct Office of Drug Policy.

“The impact is huge,” Johnson said. “All we got was the money. We didn’t get any additional personnel for managing a $4 million program. We’re basically having to design a substance abuse program from the ground up.”

Overall the department saw a $1.1 million decrease in its operating budget, but has largely been able to offset the shortfall due to cost-cutting measures and a decrease in state population.


Maryland added $3.2 million to its Department of Juvenile Services for FY 2012, but the increase is expected to restore employee furlough days, according to a budget analysis outlined by Youth Today. The department still expects to see a reduction in evidence-based services.

Down 12 percent since FY 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Youth Services has seen more than a 20 percent decline in funding since FY 2008.

Texas has begun the closure of the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in an effort to bridge a $117 million shortfall over the next two years.


States around the country have dealt with the decline in available funds for juvenile justice and other related programs in their own ways. This article is merely a snapshot of some of the realities on the ground.

Youth Today has started an open-ended compilation of state-by-state spending on juvenile justice, child welfare and youth to help make sense of all the numbers.



North Carolina Judge Rules on Pre-K Funding For At-Risk Kids

Photo credit: InspireKelly, Flickr.North Carolina cannot limit access to an early-childhood education program for at-risk children, despite funding cuts and enrollment caps in the state’s budget, ruled a state Superior Court judge.

"This is not advisory. It is an order," Melanie Dubis, an attorney for five poor school districts involved in the lawsuit, told the Associated Press.

North Carolina’s budget cuts funding for the program previously known as More at Four by 20 percent, transfers it out of the state’s education department and institutes copayments of up to 10 percent of the parent’s salary for the first time in the program’s history.

Wording in the budget also appears to cap enrollment in the program for all at-risk youth at 20 percent. Republican leaders, however, say the budget is designed to limit enrollment of children deemed at-risk for reasons other than just financial hardship - such as kids with active duty military parents, families that don’t speak English and children with health or mental disabilities.

"We disagree with Judge Manning's interpretation, and we are confident his opinion does not throw the state budget out of balance," Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, told the (Raleigh) News & Observer. "The budget does not cap the number of low-income students eligible for the program. In fact, the 20 percent cap exists, and has for several years, specifically to ensure at least 80 percent of the children enrolled are financially disadvantaged."

Later, after reviewing the budget language, Berger told the News & Observer the wording was indeed confusing and he could understand why Manning had concerns.

It’s still unclear whether the ruling will force the state legislature to redo part of the state’s $19.7 billion budget that took effect in early July.

The state’s More at Four program, now dubbed the NC Pre-Kindergarten program, stemmed from a landmark 1997 case that guaranteed every child the constitutional right to an education that allows them to compete for a job or higher education. Lawyers from some low-income school districts within the state argued that the budget undercuts gains made since the landmark ruling, known as the Leandro case after one of the plaintiffs.

Photo credit: InspireKelly, Flickr.