States taking new approach to juvenile to cut costs, improve long-term outcomes

A year ago, officials from all three branches of South Dakota government began taking a close, critical look at the state’s juvenile justice system. The working group didn’t like what it saw.

“What we found is that South Dakota was an outlier nationally,” Sen. Alan Solano says. “While juvenile commitments were declining,” he adds, “South Dakota had the second-highest incarceration rate in the country in 2011, a rate of 385 youth per 100,000.”

Further, that high commitment rate was not connected to a correspondingly high rate of violent crime, and South Dakota’s juvenile offenders were staying longer in out-of-home placements than they had in the past. Those placements were costly (anywhere from $41,000 to $144,000 per bed); were often for misdemeanors, probation violations and status offenses (such as truancy and underage drinking); and were not necessarily effective in treating young people (community-based supervision tends to yield better results).

The state needed to do better, the working group concluded. With this year’s passage of SB 73, lawmakers believe they have taken a big step forward, one that will save taxpayer dollars, reduce recidivism and improve long-term outcomes for young people. These same goals are driving proposed reforms of juvenile justice systems in other states as well. Using evidence of what has proven to work and not work in supervising and treating young offenders, states are reshaping their systems, in part by relying less on confinement.

“There is increasing recognition from the research that the effects of incarceration have not been particularly positive,” notes Josh Weber, director of the juvenile justice program at The Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Instead, many nonviolent offenders do better in a community setting, and are more likely to reoffend if incarcerated. Juvenile incarceration rates have, in fact, dropped sharply in many states over the past 15 years.

Part of that decline is due to a drop in the number of violent crimes being committed by juveniles, but a shift in public policy has contributed to this incarceration trend as well — namely, a decision not to commit low-risk juvenile offenders to state facilities.

Five years of reform in Nebraska

Nebraska’s reforms began in 2010, in part because the state had the nation’s fourth-highest rate of incarceration. And a large number of young offenders were being tried in adult, rather than juvenile, courts. 

“Besides helping kids, these efforts are preventive maintenance,” Nebraska Sen. Bob Krist says about the state’s new laws. “In the long run, if we keep creating criminals in the juvenile justice system, our corrections system will blow up.”

As a first step, Nebraska legislators passed a measure requiring that youths be placed in the least restrictive situation that their offense would allow. At the same time, the Unicameral Legislature increased funding for a violence-prevention fund in local communities.

Then, in 2013, lawmakers expanded a successful pilot project between the state’s probation and health and human services departments. The goal: Keep young offenders in their homes and out of detention facilities or group homes, and provide them with greater access to services (such as substance-abuse treatment and behavioral health counseling) as an alternative to incarceration.

“We created a system where one person, rather than two or three or four people, is connected with a child’s case, and that person can deal with the child and family in real time,” Krist explains.

Prior to this change, he says, these young people could have had a probation officer and caseworkers from several social-service agencies. Jeanne Brandner, deputy administrator of Nebraska’s Office of Probation Administration, says this change has enabled the state do a better job of helping its young people. 

“It is better to keep kids who are either in the juvenile justice or child welfare system, and are in danger of crossing over into the other system, in the one they are already in,” she adds. “They won’t have multiple people … trying to coordinate their care.”

Also under this 2013 legislation, before a juvenile is committed to a residential center, all local community-service options must first be reviewed and exhausted. Finally, the bill allocated more dollars for local governments to provide evidence-based treatment. By the following year, 11 new diversion programs had been created throughout Nebraska.

This year, Krist co-sponsored legislation (LB 500) calling for the state to seek a federal Medicaid waiver so that some juveniles on probation could receive certain proven, intensive therapies. A Nebraska-based foundation would cover the costs for training therapists.

‘Far too much recidivism’

As in Nebraska and South Dakota, recent reforms in Kansas have been driven in part by lawmakers taking a critical, comparative look at their juvenile systems.

“It became abundantly clear that we had some major shortcomings in our system,” says Rep. John Rubin, chair of the Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “There was far too much recidivism, much worse than national averages. Other states were using a more modern, evidence-based approach.

“And our incarceration level was too high. Most children are better off being treated in the community.”

Kansas is now requiring that risk-assessment tools be used to determine the likelihood of a youth reoffending. These tools help guide decisions on how to supervise and treat each juvenile offender. 

“We want the least restrictive situation possible for juveniles, commensurate with public safety,” Rubin says. “You can’t do that without a risk assessment.”

Last year, too, legislators created a lower level of offense in their sentencing procedures for juveniles. The new category is for young people whose offense was not a risk to public safety (a status offense, for example). As a result of the statutory change, these offenders will no longer be incarcerated unless a judge finds a compelling reason to do so.

Rubin hopes to pass legislation next year that will prevent youths who have committed status offenses or misdemeanors from ever being sentenced to a correctional facility. 

“The surest way to take a youthful offender who has committed a relatively minor offense and turn them into a hardened criminal is to place them with hardened criminals, he says.

More money for diversion programs

In South Dakota, if the state’s projections hold true, the Legislature’s actions this year will truly reshape the juvenile justice system. By 2020, the number of youths in residential facilities is expected to drop by 50 percent, while the number of juveniles on probation will fall by nearly 30 percent.

At the heart of this year’s reforms is a push to get more youths diverted from the court system and to community-based programs.

Under SB 73, the state will provide new financial incentives ($250 per child) to counties for these diversion programs. This will keep youths in need of supervision, rather than incarceration (lower-risk, low-level offenders), from going more deeply into the system.

Under the legislation, only the most serious juvenile offenders will be committed to residential facilities.

“A second goal,” Solano says, “was to develop a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach and increase access to high quality, community-based programs.”

These programs will provide the type of support that leads to better long-term outcomes for young people — for example, addressing substance abuse, behavioral issues or family problems. Funding for these programs will come from justice reinvestment: using some of the money saved by keeping more young people out of state facilities.

“The more we can do earlier [to help the juveniles], the greater impact we believe we can have,” Solano says.

To track the progress of the reforms under SB 73, South Dakota created an oversight body composed of leaders from all three branches of government.

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