Should 24-Year-Old Offenders be Considered Juveniles?

LAS VEGAS -- When the National Partnership for Juvenile Services annual symposium opened, Jason Bowser, a youth service director from Columbus, Ind., told an executive committee that one of the standing committees was focusing on the question of “What is a juvenile?”

It might seem an odd question for a gathering of folks who specialize in working with youth in the juvenile justice system, but really the question, even when not spoken, would be present in training sessions across the three-day symposium held here this week. Nor is it just a hypothetical question because nearly 250,000 young people under the age of 18 end up in the adult criminal justice system every year, according to the National Institute of Corrections report, “You’re an Adult Now: Youth in Adult Criminal Justice Systems.”

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice -- in a session reflecting the “Adult Now” theme -- reminded everyone that New York and North Carolina still consider juveniles to be adults at the ages of 16 or 17 in criminal proceedings, whereas in the rest of the states it’s 18. Ryan said a new report shows that each year 100,000 young people get sent to an adult facility and on any given day approximately 10,000 of them are in an adult facility.

Michael Dempsey

Once there, the correction system managers do have rules that treat the juvenile differently from the mainstream adult population. At times that means putting the kids into isolation. Elissa Rumsey, compliance monitor coordinator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), said, “Isolation means that there is no outside time, you are seriously locked down for 24/7. Some get out three hours in a week and are in a cage on the grounds by themselves. Truly no human contact, food through the door, no contact with staff, no services, no other people. That’s isolation.”

Ryan said they might be isolated because of a teenage behavior issue, be a true danger or for their own protection from the adult prisoners.

No matter the reason Rumsey says, “When they are put in isolation that increases the behavioral issues because it tends to drive one crazy when you are locked down for 24/7 without any sunlight. So they would act out with even worse behaviors.”

Michael Dempsey, who works with the Indiana Department of Correction and who has been advocating for juvenile treatment for a 14-year-old who was found guilty of murder as a 12-year-old and given an adult sentence, says, “There are many of us who believe anyone up to the age of

Cindy Thacker

23 or 24 could still be considered a juvenile, it depends on where they are at developmentally. But in the eyes of most laws anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult.”

New research demonstrates that the brain is not fully developed until about the age of 25, according to experts. Margaret Davis, who co-taught a training seminar on the latest developments in brain research, says, “When you ask a lot of people what is a juvenile, they think it has shifted today to be a later age and it really can be anybody up to the age of 25.”

Furthermore, her co-presenter Cindy Thacker said staff working with young people need tounderstand the ways kids’ brains work, and that extends to staff who work with kids in adult facilities.

Davis said, “They cannot and should not be treating those kids the same way they are treating the adult offenders. They need more programming, they need more structure. These 16-year-olds cannot make the decisions for themselves the way a 30-year-old offender makes those decisions.”

Margaret Davis

Dempsey, from the Indiana Department of Corrections, said unfortunately that is not the case for kids when they end up in the adult system. They have to deal with staff who are trained to work with adults and not trained to be adolescence development specialists, he said.

As we deal with the question: What is a juvenile and how to best treat youth in the juvenile justice system, Dempsey says we must identify the best approaches and piece-by-piece build a best practice model that can be duplicated nationally.

“I think we will get there. It is a slow process,” he said.

Photos by Leonard Witt |

Experts Offer Strategies for Preventing Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Crossover

We knew the pathway existed,” Shay Bilchick said during the opening of Preventing Youth from Crossing Over Between the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems, a webinar held Wednesday by the National Training & Technical Assistance Center, a program of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

As a prosecutor working the family court circuits in Florida, Bilchik -- now the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute -- noted an apparent connection between child abuse and neglect and delinquency cases, referring to such crossover youth as a “challenging” population. 

Shortly after Bilchik joined the Public Policy Institute in 2007, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Casey Family Programs worked together to create the Crossover Youth Practice Model. This model stems from the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Integration Breakthrough Series Collaborative, developed in the mid-1990s by the Associates in Process Improvement, Casey Family Programs and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

According to Bilchik, certain methods, policies and practices can “interrupt the trajectory” of crossover between child welfare and juvenile justices systems. Serving as the webinar’s moderator, he introduced three speakers with extensive experience in “crossover prevention.”

“These young people are our young people,” said CJJR Program Manager Macon Stewart. “Prevention is a collective responsibility.”

Stewart said that crossover youth entails three categories of juveniles; those that have experienced some level of maltreatment and delinquency -- typically referred to simply as “crossover youth” -- as well as dually-involved youth and dually-adjudicated youth. The primary difference between the latter two, Stewart said, is that while dually-involved youth, to some degree, have been involved in both systems, dually-adjudicated youth have been “formally involved” in both systems through court actions.

Stewart noted four primary pathways in which youth crossover between child welfare and juvenile justice systems, noting that juveniles with open child welfare cases and subsequent delinquency charges represented the “most dominant form of crossover.”

Although many factors influence crossover youth, Stewart cited placement instability, the absence of pro-social bonds and challenges in educational settings as the three most common.

In evaluating crossover youth, Stewart advised communities to collect data on previous referrals, placement types, number of placement moves and especially individual pathways to crossing over. “The data is key in this,” she said, urging stakeholders to establish “a memorandum of understanding” around data sharing.

Stewart suggested that prevention efforts focus on building collaborative relationships with local law enforcement, placement providers and schools, emphasizing “time-limited” and “very targeted” approaches. She advised that foster home and residential placement personnel should have trauma-informed training and encouraged the use of student mentors and advisors for at-risk youth. She also advocated the use of school liaisons, so that stakeholders could concentrate on “what can you do as opposed to focusing in on what you can’t do.”

“Prevention strategies in L.A. have been going on for many years,” said Maryam Fatemi, the deputy director of Los Angeles County’s Division of Family and Children Services. She said that the county adopted their initial process in 1997, resulting in a pilot project, called the AB 129-Systems Integration Initiative, in 2007. By 2012, an updated protocol called the Los Angeles County Crossover Youth Initiative -- which is anchored around multi-departmental, joint assessments -- had been implemented countywide.

Citing a 2011 study funded by the Hilton Foundation, Fatemi said there was a definite connection between prior child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency. The adult outcomes for crossover youth, she said, were many times tragic.

“Nearly one quarter of crossover youth received treatment for a serious mental illness during the first four years of adulthood,” she said.

Fatemi promoted the use of multi-system strategies, specifically multi-disciplinary teams and collaboration with existing school-based programs, as a means of preventing youth crossover. “Education and employment services provide key opportunities for intervention,” she said.

Children in group homes are a population Fatemi is particularly concerned about. “Youth living in a group home when arrested are more likely to be detained in juvenile hall than youth residing in other types of placement,” she stated. To deter youth crossover, she advised that group homes engage in sharing data with other departments and give feedback to other agencies about staff turnover and delays in service.

Mick Moore, assistant to the Superintendent for Interagency Relations with the Puget Sound Educational Service District and a senior education consultant in King County, Wash., helped develop the PathNet model, which is designed to help crossover youth achieve “alternative pathways” to education, particularly when they lack sufficient credits to obtain a high school diploma.

“Stability is a key factor in limiting crossover,” he said. The PathNet model consists of four primary modules, which include strength-based assessments, student-driven plans, connectivity to proper educational and vocational programs and the assistance of a “care manger,” which Moore described as “a significant adult there to help them.”

Moore referred to the program as “an immediate step to the next connection in education and vocation.” In 2010, House Bill 1418 was officially adopted by the Washington Legislature, creating a statewide program to reengage youth that are “significantly” behind in academic credits.

Using braided funding models, a number of programs designed to help crossover youth were established, among them a dropout intervention program targeting Latino youth called “Avanza” as well as a project called “Pathway through Apprenticeship,” which helps community college students connect with local businesses and industries.

Moore ended his presentation by stating that crossover youth require consistent, dependable services, which may take many years to develop.

“Instability is one of our greatest problems with these youth,” Moore concluded. “Reengagement into education and vocation with crossover youth is a process, not a singular event.”

Photo by the OJJDP.

Juvenile-involved Murder Rate Holds Steady

Youths are involved in murders, either as victims or perpetrators, at about the same rate as they have been for the last few years, according to newly gathered statistics. Both figures are far down from an early 1990s peak.

In 1994, juveniles were involved in committing more than 2,300 murders. The year before that, nearly 3,000 minors were murder victims.

In 2010, the statistics had fallen to 788 and 948 respectively, according to data recently published by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which complies figures voluntarily reported by many jurisdictions nationwide, including the largest urban areas in the country. For the past decade, neither number has gone above 1,100.

Some people will say “the question isn’t so much why did they come down but why did they go up,” in the early 1990s, said Melissa Sickmund, interim director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the nonprofit that developed the OJJDP’s Briefing Book.

“I don’t think that anyone has definitively said ‘this is it, this is the reason,’” for the change in the statistics over the decades, she said.  It’s most certainly several things at work.

She says studies show the 1990s numbers may have come from “volatility in the drug market when crack hit the streets.” As dealers and drug lords battled to stake out territory in a new market, they recruited the young and put guns in their hands.

Programs like Boston’s Gun Project also play a part, she said.  When that program was in place, police cracked down on gun traffickers and gangs in certain key areas. The juvenile murder victim rate fell by half. Even better emergency room care drives down the murder rate by saving more lives.

Buddy Howell agrees that there’s no one proven factor behind juvenile-involved murder. He’s written about and studied the problem for more than two decades and is now senior research associate at the National Gang Center, a federally funded research body. He said gang-related murder rates are stubbornly steady.

“Gangs don’t seem to be affected by so-called national trends,” said Howell. “The gang problem really varies from one city to another.”

There were about 2,000 gang-related murders annually from 2006 through 2010, according to the National Youth Gang Survey. Howell cautioned, however, that the data also includes gang members over the age of 18 and only counts mostly the few hundred most populated counties.

Yet that probably catches the vast majority of murders, which are overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of urban counties. Los Angeles and Chicago alone account for about half the murders. Conditions that make neighborhood kids more at risk for joining gangs, like unemployment and poverty, don’t change in big cities, Howell said.

Webinar Examines Sexual Exploitation of Girls by Gangs

CHICAGO-- Although gangs are a chronic problem in many urban and suburban areas of the nation, this city included, certain aspects of gang life don’t receive the attention – and therefore the resources – necessary to combat them.

In particular, the sexual exploitation of girls by gangs is a serious problem currently facing law enforcement, courts, educators and social service programs across the country, according to a panel that met this week to discuss the issue.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention presented a webinar Wednesday through the Missing and Exploited Children’s Program to address promising practices for targeting the commercial sexual exploitation of girls in gangs. The webinar built on MECP’s June presentation about exploitation by offering organizations and individuals suggestions for internal practices and appropriate interaction with victims.

“The top thing that sexually abused, victimized girls say they want in treatment and in custody is someone to talk to,” said speaker Keith Burt, a retired deputy district attorney and former Chief of the Gang Prosecution Division in San Diego. “Someone they feel they can trust, that they can just talk to.”

Although the speakers acknowledged males and transgender individuals suffer from sexual exploitation by gangs, the victims are overwhelmingly female. Burt also stressed that it’s important to remember these youth are not child prostitutes, but actually victims of horrible sexual abuse imposed by sophisticated perpetrators.

“What we do know about exploiters is that they are very organized,” said Jenee Littrell, who directs the guidance and wellness program at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, and has experience working with sexually victimized students. “[Exploiters] are making a lot of money out of this. They have a huge investment in staying ahead of us, and frankly, they’re able to respond and move their systems way faster than we are. So the more that we can do to share our information and stay tight together… then the more responsive we’re going to be able to be in identifying and preventing students from falling into this.”

Alfredo Nambo, the principal at Latino Youth High School in Chicago’s Little Village, has encountered similar problems of general sexual violence among his female students involved in gang life.

“Not only does [sexual violence] happen, but there's not a support system for them to come out and get those services that they need,” Nambo said. “And so they suffer in silence that way.”

One of the slides from the MECP’s webinar emphasized a social ecological approach for understanding the issue of sexual exploitation of victims by gang members.

Nambo’s frustration with the lack of resources for this “rampant” problem was echoed during the webinar. Other problems include limited access to juvenile records and a lack of options for law enforcement when dealing with the victims.

For example, officers have typically been limited to charging youth as underage prostitutes. But the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010, decriminalized sex-trade involvement for children younger than 18. Deemed unable to consent to their own commercial sexual exploitation, minors are no longer considered perpetrators or juvenile prostitutes. And states across the nation continue to pass legislation against human trafficking.

Some states are even developing progressive programs to address the unique situations of these victims. Burt, for example, mentioned the Hawai’i Girls Court as an example of the judicial system effectively addressing the specific needs of girls who have been sexually victimized by gangs. According to its website, the Hawai’i Girls Court boasts an all-female staff and is “one of the first courts in the United States built on a full range of gender-specific and strength-based programming with a caseload targeting female juvenile offenders.”

The Hawai’i Girls Court is just one example of promising methods for addressing the issue. But beyond big scale approaches like a gender-tailored family court, Burt and Littrell stressed collaboration with victims as a means to better understand their situations and move forward together. In response to a question about what small businesses could do to address sexual exploitation by gangs in their immediate communities, Burt suggested owners could essentially befriend the victims. Instead of seeing victims as aliens or a part of a crime problem in front of their business, Burt said this approach could really make a difference.

“You’d be surprised at what information [you] can get, what little thing may… turn the tide for one of these victims in terms of changing her life,” Burt said.


Gateway to Adult Court for Young Defendants Slowly Closing

In a Georgia courtroom last month, 11-year-old Dalton Archer plead guilty to murdering his father’s girlfriend near Christmastime last year, when he was 10. Archer automatically went through juvenile court, something that took years of fighting for a similar defendant in Pennsylvania. Though changes are happening across the country, not all young people are guaranteed a juvenile court hearing instead of adult court for very serious crimes.

In 1997, Oklahoma law specified that children as young as 7 could be handed to adult courts, according to a 1998 report from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. At that time, about one-third of the states set some floor age between 10 and 15 for eligibility for transfer to criminal court. The rest set none.

By 2008, a handful of references to 7- and 8-year-old eligibility for adult trials were erased from state codes. Two-thirds of states had set a floor for transfer to adult courts on murder charges, all between 10 and 15 years old. And most states had set a minimum age for adult court on non-murder charges, according to a 2009 report by Michele Deitch of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet 22 states and the District of Columbia still had no minimum age for adult court, Deitch reported at that time. Which, read with laws on minimum age for criminal intent, meant children as young as 7 could go to adult court, she wrote. And numerous states automatically sent juveniles charged with certain crimes straight to adult court, a process called mandatory transfer.

Deitch still studies youth in adult courts and says since her report, she’s “not seen any state take this [mandatory transfer] on explicitly, though it may be part of other reforms.” But she also added that she is “seeing some states remove some items from transfer-eligible offenses.”

Mississippi put most 17-year-olds charged with arson, drug offenses or robbery firmly in juvenile court under a 2010 law. The same year, Nevada closed a loophole that allowed prosecutors to delay filing charges against 13-year-olds until they were 14 and would be sent to adult court. And Colorado decided to send most 14- and 15-year-olds to juvenile court by default instead of adult court.

But for some juveniles involved in serious crimes, the adult system remains the first stop after arrest, no matter what.

“Pennsylvania, like some other states, treats all cases of murder as adults in the first instance,” noted Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania.

“For example, the case earlier this year, Jordan Brown was arrested at 11 for murder,” said Schwartz. “Originally he was kept in the adult system then sent to juvenile court.”

Brown was arrested in 2009, but it took until 2012 for his defenders to get him moved to and his case heard in a juvenile court.

"But serious, violent felony cases involving preteen defendants make up only a handful of all criminal cases involving minors of all ages," Schwartz noted.

Complete national statistics are not available, but a large FBI dataset called the Uniform Crime Reporting Program listed nine juveniles aged 12 and under arrested for murder or manslaughter in 2010, and a dozen the year before. Robberies barely topped 600 in each year.

Upcoming Conferences To Highlight Juvenile Justice, Crimes Against Children

Juvenile justice and child welfare issues will be the focus of two upcoming national conferences.

The Washington, D.C.-based Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is sponsoring the “Conference for Children's Justice & Safety
 Unite, Build, Lead” October 10-14 in National Harbor, Md.

The four-day forum will bring together juvenile justice practitioners and policymakers from across the nation to review current trends and promising practices in juvenile justice. The “Conference for Children's Justice & Safety 
Unite, Build, Lead” will feature workshops, plenaries and keynote sessions beginning October 12.

Topics covered will include crimes against children, anti-gang strategies, children's exposure to violence, disproportionate minority contact, girls' delinquency, tribal youth programs, emergency planning for juvenile justice, faith-based and community involvement, mentoring, truancy and bullying and substance abuse.

During two pre-conference days, October 10–11, OJJDP will lead sessions, highlighting juvenile justice research; youth trauma, recovery and resiliency along with preventing child sexual exploitation. For more information, visit the OJJDP's website.  

Child welfare workers are also invited to participate in the 23rd Annual
”Crimes Against Children Conference” (CACC) in downtown Dallas this summer.

The forum is slated for August 8 – 11 at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel. Organizers say the goal of the conference is to provide practical instruction using current information, the newest ideas and most successful intervention strategies available to help professionals responsible for combating the many and varied forms of crimes against children. Over 20 years ago, CACC started with just 50 attendees and two speakers provided training to a small group of law enforcement professionals. Conference faculty has now surpassed 200 with a variety of workshops presented each year.

In addition to traditional topics in the field of crimes against children, this year’s event will feature unique tracks of computer lab training for professionals working on internet-related crimes against children. Since 1988, professionals involved in the investigation, prosecution and treatment of crimes against children have received training at this conference. Last year marked record attendance each year with an all-time high of nearly 3,500 participants. For more information, visit the conference website.

Probation Domination

Probation was the most serious verdict in one-third of teen crime in the U.S. In 2007, 1.7 million delinquency cases were handled by courts with juvenile jurisdiction. This has increased 34% over the past three decades. Nearly 60% of the cases were ordered by the court while the remainder agreed to some form of voluntary probation. This is according to a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Kids Who Abuse Drugs Are More Likely to Commit Serious Crimes

Most young people who land in juvenile court have been using drugs, which may shed light on why some kids commit moreserious crimes and continue getting into trouble.

Kids involved in criminal activity are much more likely than other juvenile offenders to abuse drugs and alcohol, according to a study commissioned by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The Pathways to Desistance study, called Substance Use and Delinquent Behavior Among Serious Adolescent Offenders, looked at more than 1,300 young offenders over 7 years.

The study shows kids involved with drugs need income and they have trouble coping and making decisions. They get into trouble and fail to take responsibility for their actions.

Here are some other links between drug abuse and teen offenders:

  • Kids who abuse drugs when they’re young are morel likely to get in trouble when they’re older.
  • Kids with diagnosable problems are more likely to get treatment in jail for drug and alcohol abuse than those who are not diagnosed.

Researchers recommend that justice system put more effort into finding, diagnosing and treating kids because they will be less likely to get into trouble as they get older.

Why Kids End Up In Jail And What They Have In Common

About 20 percent of kids in jail are there because of a violent crime and about 69 percent of those kids say they knew their victims. In addition, 44 percent of incarcerated youth were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when committing an offense and about 55 percent committed their current offense with someone else.

This information comes from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which released its latest bulletin called Youth Characteristics and Backgrounds that focuses on the characteristics of young people in jail to better understand the reasons why they’ve offended.

The Office looked extensively at jailed kids between 10 and 20 years old. Here are some other fascinating facts:

  • Although boys on average commit more serious offenses like murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery, girls have been arrested more than boys in the past decade.
  • The majority of kids locked up (51 percent) are 16 or 17 years old.
  • The demographics of children in jail are split rather evenly: 35 percent are white or non-Hispanic, 32 percent are Black or African American and 24 percent are Hispanic.
  • Fourteen percent of young people in jail say they have children.

The bulletin makes several suggestions for helping kids stay out of the system, such as developing programs that address a child’s specific needs, considering a child’s family situations and their future goals.

Sixty Percent of Kids are Exposed to Violence

More than 60 percent of children have been directly or indirectly exposed to violence within the past year, according to a national study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Nearly one-half of kids surveyed were assaulted at least once in the past year and more than 1 in 10 were injured in an assault.

Conducted between January and May 2008, the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, measured exposure to violence for kids 17 and younger. They looked at conventional crime, sex crimes, school violence and threats, family violence and more.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently unveiled the Defending Childhood Initiative, focused on this issue. So far, the Department of Justice has aware $5.5 million to eight cities (none of them in Georgia) to focus on:

  • Providing appropriate programs and service for families and children
  • Increasing access to quality programs and services
  • Developing new services where gaps exist.

For the Department of Justice’s full press release, click here.