Thursday, May 17, 2012

Juvenile Justice Reform: CFCC’s Urban Child Symposium, The Beginning or the End? The Urban Child’s Experience in the Juvenile Justice System

Professor Bernardine Dohrn opened CFCC’s fourth annual Urban Child Symposium with a powerful presentation on the Supreme Court’s recent consideration of juvenile justice cases.    Over 200 people attended “The Beginning or the End? The Urban Child's Experience in the Juvenile Justice System,” which included interdisciplinary panel discussions of issues such as the psychological, social, and emotional characteristics of juveniles; whether juveniles can and/or should be tried as adults; racial disparities/disproportionate minority representation; and the school-to-prison pipeline, among others.

You can view the agenda here and listen to some of the panelists discuss juvenile justice issues on WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks here.

Professor Dohrn spoke about positive changes in the juvenile justice field in the past decade. She discussed recent Supreme Court decisions that have banned capital punishment for juveniles and life-without-parole for non-homicide juvenile offenses.  She urged symposium participants to pay attention to the Supreme Court’s recognition that children experience the world differently and that there must be a more accurate understanding of children’s interactions with the law.

Several ideas emerged during the course of the symposium:

     Juveniles should be directed toward community and family-based treatment rather than incarceration. Speakers urged consideration of evidence-based, non-residential programs as the single most important alternative to sending juveniles to detention facilities, many of which are characterized by violence and poor conditions.  Speakers described a number of alternative and diversion programs that are proven to be more effective in addressing juvenile crime and recidivism.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Bart Lubow and other speakers discussed the massive financial burden of juvenile incarceration (including Maryland’s proposed $100 million juvenile prison facility), which could be used instead to support widespread diversionary prevention and treatment programs.

     Racial and ethnic disparities (“Disproportionate Minority Contact”) must be addressed on a system-wide basis and across all decision points in a juvenile case.  Special populations, like girls; trauma victims; children with special needs; and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender youth must also be protected and considered.  Many presenters, including Professor Odeana Neal, attorney and reform advocate Dana Shoenberg, and Assistant State’s Attorney George Simms encouraged the expansion of best practices in this area to combat current differences in outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics.  

     Laws requiring or allowing juveniles to be tried as adults should be abandoned because they hurt children and endanger society.  Professor Dohrn and other presenters reported that juvenile involvement in the adult criminal justice and prison systems is counter-productive.  Juveniles are often victimized by adults in the prison system, and recidivism (re-offending) increases for juveniles who come out of adult prisons. 

     All stakeholders – including families, schools, prosecutors, departments of juvenile services, social workers, employers and more – should be involved in reform efforts.  Parent Advocate Kimberly Armstrong spoke poignantly about her experience as the parent of a child in the juvenile justice system.  Instead of finding support and collaboration in the juvenile justice system, she encountered multiple barriers when seeking help for her son and often felt alone in advocating on his behalf.  She now encourages all stakeholders in the juvenile justice system to enlist the support of parents and to treat them as valuable partners in addressing their children’s problems.

For more information, you can watch a podcast of the symposium proceedings and access many of the Powerpoint presentations here.  We hope that our presenters and participants will blog about the issues discussed during the event, and we welcome comments from our readers.

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