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Speakers Urge Better Care for Youth In Justice System

Advocates for reducing juvenile incarceration told a recent webinar audience that the sooner trauma and other problems are addressed, the less likely it will be that children commit crimes serious enough to invite decades-long sentences.

Speakers previewed a new report on currently incarcerated people in prisons for crimes committed as children, shared best practices for training, and modeled state practices for law enforcement engagement with youth. The webinar was sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association and the International Community Justice Association on Nov 3.

James Dold, founder and CEO of Humans Rights for Kids, said there are currently more than 30,000 people incarcerated for crimes they committed as children, with 10,000 of those people serving life sentences. "For so long in the movement, we've really focused on kids who've come into the juvenile justice system," Dold said, "... Often times we forget about what happens to youth who are held in adult jails or adult prisons once they age up from 17 to 18 and go on to continue to serve their likely sentence."

Dold countered the idea that children are miniature adults and spoke about how important it is to protect the "child status." "What unites us all is this common belief that as a country and as a society we need to do better to protect the human rights of children who come into conflict with the law," he said.

Elizabeth Ryan, administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, emphasized the need for more developmentally appropriate approaches. "We need to treat children as children," Ryan said, pointing to the need to serve young people in their own communities and with their families using programs that are healing-centered.

She said many youths want programs based in local communities. "They want to be heard, their needs to be met, they want families involved and they want mentors," Ryan said. That, she said, can help young people build long-term, genuine relationships with trusted adults who can encourage self-confidence when making decisions.

Lisa Thurau, Executive Director of Strategies for Youth, discussed ways to reform the front end of the juvenile justice system. Thurau emphasized to viewers to keep in mind that teen brains are still developing. "We know from our experiences both being kids and working with them that immaturity, reactivity and being uninformed or misinformed are key characteristics of adolescence," Thurau said.

Thurau said some of the ways adults interact with youths result in unwanted outcomes. Negative police contact creates more damage, she said. The lack of consensus about how and whom to police as well as how to punish makes it difficult to have a uniform response when dealing with juveniles.

However, while law enforcement agencies vary, one common factor nationwide is racial disparities in arrests. "Youth of color, especially Black youth, are referred, arrested, detained, adjudicated and incarcerated at much higher rates than white youths," Thurau said.

Some of the strategies she provided included equipping law enforcement with developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, racially equitable policies, practices, and partnerships, which she said most American law enforcement lack.

Thurau cited findings in a 2011 survey that police officers did not receive in-person training for dealing with youths after leaving the academy because of a lack of funding. A more recent survey showed that police academies averaged six hours of youth training and that most states provided no training on youths' developmental and mental health issues.

The Department of Justice earlier this month announced grants of more than $136 million for an array of youth services, including reforming state and local juvenile justice systems.


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