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Budget pressures lead to less incarceration of Black youth

4/1/2013, 5:13 a.m.

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Dwindling state budgets have had an unintended positive effect – prompting states to reduce the number of juveniles arrested and detained, according to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute.

JPI, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform, identified five states that achieved more than 50 percent reduction in youth confinement: Connecticut (down 57.2 percent), Tennessee (55.0 percent), Louisiana (52.7 percent), Minnesota (50.6 percent) and Arizona (50.2 percent). The confinement population includes those held at youth detention centers mandated by the courts, those awaiting court proceedings, and youth admitted voluntarily as a form of shock therapy to discourage future lawlessness.

“If you take a look at the list of states, they don’t have a lot in common geographically or culturally,” said Spike Bradford, a senior research associate at JPI. “This change in juvenile confinement can happen anywhere.”

The study from the Justice Policy Institute described how states have worked to reform their juvenile justice systems with varying levels of success.

Some states achieved a reduction in their youth incarceration numbers by changing the “fiscal architecture” of the system where some locales spend as much as $240 per day, per youth; others placed a greater emphasis on treatment and some closed facilities.

The JPI report found a number of similarities between the states that were able to reduce their numbers by more than half. Class action lawsuits were filed against those states over the conditions of the juvenile justice system.

“State leaders and stakeholders understand that successful lawsuits may result in costly settlements and other sanctions if remedies are not met,” the JPI report said. “Savvy community leaders also recognize that negative media attention on a state’s treatment of young people – adjudicated delinquent or not – influences public opinion about their government.”

The juvenile justice system was also separated from the adult system, and inter-agency partnerships were beefed up. State officials also recognized the myriad difference between youth behavior and their mistakes and adult criminal behavior.

“Four of the five top performing states uncoupled juvenile and adult corrections and/or integrated juvenile corrections with child welfare services,” the JPI report said.

This strategy could greatly benefit Black youth who compromise 62 percent of the young people prosecuted in adult courts, but roughly 17 percent of the entire youth population, according to the CDF.

Bradford said that the key to steering youth away from prisons is to treat them as young people, not as adults.

“Developmentally appropriate responses, because you’ll find that when you look at young people as kids that make certain kinds of mistakes and have certain kinds of decision-making skills you will be less likely to put them behind bars and more likely to give them behavioral treatment that are more appropriate for their age,” Bradford said. “By doing that you’re saving money because confinement is the most expensive thing that we can do.”

He added, “If you can divert kids from confinement in developmentally appropriate ways, you almost have to save money.”