Recommendations on new juvenile justice system bear close consideration

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

We've always taken news releases from advocacy groups with more than a grain of salt, the Voices for Children organization included.

A report issued Tuesday, however, bears serious consideration. If it proves to be accurate, and we believe it is, it should help guide lawmakers in reshaping the juvenile justice system far into the future.

One of the most important points is that many issues that are behavioral and emotional in nature land youths in the juvenile justice system, or even in the adult prison system, while their root problems are neglected.

There's an old saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Yes, juveniles who break the law need to face the consequences. But, with most of the youths in the juvenile justice system having a diagnosable mental health disorder, as the report points out, more resources should be targeted toward psychological treatment.

Bringing the full force of the juvenile justice hammer down on every youth may be missing the nail altogether.

Tuesday's report, "Spare Some Change: An Account of the Nebraska Juvenile Justice and Children's Behavioral Health Systems," summarizes the history of the juvenile justice system, analyzes the current Nebraska system and makes recommendations.

Among the highlights:

* After juvenile arrests declined between 1999 and 2003, statewide arrests increased to 16,000 in 2006.

* The number of juveniles serving in adult prisons also increased by 19.4 percent to 86 Nebraska youth in the adult system in 2006.

* Most of the crimes for which youth are arrested are non-violent crimes, yet these youth are still serving time rather than receiving needed rehabilitation and behavioral health treatment.

* A disproportionate number of minority youth are in the juvenile justice system. 39.2 percent of all juvenile arrests in Nebraska were youth of minority race or ethnicity, while minority youth account for 10.4 percent of the total Nebraska youth population.

* Youth involved in the system have a greater likelihood of exposure to risk factors like abuse and neglect and substance abuse.

* Four out of five youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Based on research on the adolescent brain, the report recommends keeping youth in their home communities whenever possible, creating standardized procedures for youth evaluation and placement, increasing the funding and attention to behavioral and emotional issues of youth, limiting the practice of trying and sentencing youth as adults, and investing in local community services that facilitate responsible community involvement.

No, there's no reason to let misbehaving juveniles get away with breaking the law, and discipline needs to begin long before law enforcement gets involved.

But the juvenile justice system needs to be given a wider variety of tools for its toolchest.

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