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Progress in Juvenile Justice: 2017
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 06/18/2018

Juvenile justice courthouse There has been no shortage of issues facing advocates of juvenile justice reform, the age at which offenders are tried as adults, the use of juvenile life without parole, racial disparities, and failures to provide adequate rehabilitation, education, and mental health resources foremost among them. Like many of the challenges facing the nation’s collective corrections system, such as overcrowding and sentencing disparities, these issues arose mostly in response to the “get tough on crime” political environment that emerged in the 1980s in response to rising crime rates and spreading drug-related violence. The pendulum has begun to swing back toward moderation, and in 2017 several state legislatures passed significant reforms to their juvenile justice systems.

Probably the most significant change was undertaken by New York and North Carolina, the only two states that still automatically charged 16-year-olds as adults. New York’s provision takes effect in October 2018 for 16-year-old defendants and one year later for 17-year-olds. Under North Carolina’s updated statute, cases for 16- and 17-year-old defendants charged with misdemeanors and some felonies will automatically originate in juvenile court. In both states exceptions can still be made; New York judges have the option to prosecute a defendant in this age group as an adult in felony cases, and North Carolina’s law excludes certain felonies including burglary, arson, possession of a firearm by a felon, and some drug distribution charges.

Utah enacted the broadest reforms, which had bipartisan support in the legislature. Fines and fees for juveniles are now capped. School-based court referrals are limited. New lower maximums have been established for the amount of time a juvenile offender may be detained or on probation. Removal of juveniles from their homes is also now limited. These changes are projected to reduce juvenile custody levels by 47 percent and save the state over $70 million.

In an effort to help juveniles move beyond youthful mistakes, seven states made expungement or sealing of juvenile records easier. In some cases the changes were fairly basic; Tennessee’s new law requires courts to inform juveniles about expunction, including sending a notice when a former juvenile offender turns 17 and creating a standard expunction petition form. Delaware made several procedural changes that essentially made expungement easier for juvenile offenses. California relaxed provisions that prohibited sealing a juvenile record during the lifetime of the offender for a serious or violent offense committed by a juvenile aged 14 or older. Louisiana similarly made expungement easier for juvenile offenses, and even murder, manslaughter, or registration-eligible sex offenses can be expunged after five years since the last juvenile case as long as the individual has no pending indictments, felony convictions, or misdemeanor convictions involving a firearm in adult court.

Texas, Illinois, and Colorado went even further. All three states created requirements for automatic expungement of certain juvenile records. Texas will automatically seal misdemeanor juvenile cases once the offender turns 19 so long as they have no pending cases or convictions. Colorado will automatically expunge juvenile records upon dismissal, a not guilty verdict, or completion of sentence so long as the crime was a misdemeanor or other petty offense, does not require victim notification, and was not a domestic violence or sex offense. Illinois will automatically expunge arrest records when the offense does not result in delinquency, and certain other offenses can be expunged after a waiting period, although violent or sex crimes and other serious offenses are not eligible. Several of these states also placed additional limits on public access to juvenile records.

Three states moved to increase due process protections. California will require defendants age 15 and younger to be advised by legal counsel before waiving any Miranda rights and before a custodial interrogation. Delaware established the right of a juvenile to counsel and prohibits waiving counsel for any defendant who is under 16 or is in the custody of the Division of Family Services, in any felony case, or when the alleged victim is a family member or guardian of the defendant. Oregon made two changes. One requires police to record any custodial interrogation of a juvenile (under age 18) in felony cases. The other requires counsel for juveniles in any felony, misdemeanor, or probation proceeding. A defendant who is at least 16 may waive counsel in writing, but only after a court hearing establishes that he or she has “knowingly, intelligently, and willingly” done so.

Oregon also enacted limits on use of restraints on juvenile offenders. Restraints are prohibited as punishment and may not be used for “convenience” or solely because staff is not able to directly supervise the offender. However, a court may grant an exception if there is an “immediate and serious” risk of behavior that is dangerous or disruptive, assuming no less-restrictive alternatives exist that provide an adequate solution. The same measure also explicitly prohibits offenders younger than 18 from being placed in an adult facility “under any circumstances” and formalized an existing policy against placing juveniles alone in a locked room as a disciplinary measure. New Hampshire’s reform was much less comprehensive but outlawed “indiscriminate” use of handcuffs and shackles on juveniles during court appearances.

There had been significant progress in juvenile justice reform even prior to 2017, with total offenders held in juvenile detention facilities decreasing by 50 percent since 2000, which was the peak population year. Still, over 5,000 juveniles remain incarcerated in adult facilities. Many observers and researchers continue to insist that a juvenile justice system that simply mirrors the adult system is not the answer; youth are significantly different in their intellectual, emotional, and psychological development (and more importantly still in the course of that development), and the wrong correctional approach to juvenile crime can inadvertently create more adult criminals instead of achieving rehabilitation. A youthful offender who is unable to complete their education, find gainful employment because of a juvenile criminal record, or suffers (or continues to suffer) from mental illness is all too likely to return to the justice system as an adult—and in many cases for a more serious offense.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Purdue Global University He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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