Thursday, 18 August 2011

Editorial: Tough-love not always wise course in juvenile justice

The tough-love approach to juvenile justice undertaken in the 1980s and ’90s was designed to send a message to frighten would-be young criminals.
You get caught, you go to jail.

To an extent it worked, at least for awhile.

The question some officials are asking now is at what price.

Although removing an offender from the community has an immediacy to it that provides a sense of security, there are no conclusive indications it addresses the longer-term problem of preventing children from becoming adult criminals.

Many judges found themselves limited in the options available to them and there was little “in-between” punishment to take into account such questions as whether the child was likely to be a repeat offender, what removing them from the family structure would do or whether jail was truly warranted.

Several studies have indicated the majority of juveniles in institutions — 40 to 60 percent — are not felony offenders and present no signs of chronic criminal behavior. A review of 1,300 juvenile criminals showed prison did nothing more to prevent recidivism than did other forms of punishment, including probation.

Now, youth justice advocates are starting to review the benefits of community treatment instead of incarceration.

“The way we address and punish delinquent minors has a lasting effect on the life of the child, and extends into adulthood. If we can make it easier for them to better their lives and avoid creating a lifelong criminal, we should exhaust every other alternative before confinement,” said Maywood Democratic state Rep. Karen D. Yarbrough.

That prompted her to become the chief sponsor of House Bill 83, which was signed into law Tuesday. It requires juvenile court judges to consider educational and mental health needs of the offender to make certain the sentence is the best possible. In essence, it is directing juvenile court officials in Illinois to study all the options rather than just giving up on the child and continuing a sad cycle that continues for years.

Critics see it as a costly proposition that is akin to holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” while ignoring the criminal act.

To the contrary, community treatment often costs less than incarceration. It also does not tie a judge’s hands in sending juveniles to prison when warranted.

Absolutely, there are crimes when prison is the best option.

It should not be the only choice, though.

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