Prosecutors Speak on Juvenile Justice Reform

Posted March 2, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog prosecutorsspeakonjjreform 2017

The Texas Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion (TPPF) has released a report that sug­gests pos­si­ble com­mon ground for col­lab­o­ra­tion between pros­e­cu­tors and oth­ers work­ing to reform juve­nile jus­tice pol­i­cy and prac­tice. New Pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al Per­spec­tives: A Frame­work for Effec­tive Juve­nile Jus­tice sum­ma­rizes inter­views with pros­e­cu­tors who have advo­cat­ed for or advanced inno­v­a­tive prac­tices in juve­nile pros­e­cu­tion.” While the Foun­da­tion does not endorse this report, we believe it sug­gests pos­si­ble com­mon ground for col­lab­o­ra­tion between pros­e­cu­tors and oth­ers work­ing to reform juve­nile jus­tice pol­i­cy and prac­tice. The report also offers use­ful insights into pros­e­cu­tors’ con­cerns and opinions.

The pros­e­cu­tors inter­viewed in the report agree on a num­ber of key reform principles:

  • They held a near-uni­ver­sal focus on reha­bil­i­ta­tion” as a pri­ma­ry juve­nile jus­tice goal.
  • They acknowl­edged that youth are dif­fer­ent from adults.
  • They expressed some con­cerns about the use of incarceration.

Illi­nois dis­trict Judge Ben­jamin Roe, a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor, told the researchers, The num­ber one pri­or­i­ty must be reha­bil­i­ta­tion — always. You almost always have more suc­cess treat­ing kids in the com­mu­ni­ty and not behind bars.”

The report under­scores the pros­e­cu­tors’ sup­port for diver­sion pro­grams, includ­ing restora­tive jus­tice. It also high­lights their con­cerns about the num­ber of youth who get caught up in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem instead of receiv­ing the ser­vices they need.

In Novem­ber, the Nation­al Dis­trict Attor­neys Asso­ci­a­tion and the Nation­al Juve­nile Jus­tice Pros­e­cu­tion Cen­ter at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty updat­ed the association’s Nation­al Juve­nile Pros­e­cu­tion Stan­dards and cor­re­spond­ing Juve­nile Pros­e­cu­tion Pol­i­cy Posi­tions and Guide­lines. Many of the prin­ci­ples reflect­ed in the New Pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al Per­spec­tives report also appear in these doc­u­ments, includ­ing the need for juve­nile pros­e­cu­tors to have spe­cial­ized train­ing in top­ics such as ado­les­cent devel­op­ment and the impact of child­hood trau­ma. The pol­i­cy guide­lines also sug­gest that only pros­e­cu­tors who real­ly want to prac­tice in juve­nile court be assigned there. Both doc­u­ments encour­age pros­e­cu­tors to play an influ­en­tial role in delin­quen­cy pre­ven­tion and ear­ly inter­ven­tion efforts.

While both the New Pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al Per­spec­tives report and the stan­dards and pol­i­cy doc­u­ments offer areas of com­mon inter­est between juve­nile jus­tice reform efforts and pros­e­cu­tors’ aims, they also point out areas of diver­gence. Since the TPPF report reflects the thoughts of a small group of pros­e­cu­tors, it includes a num­ber of opin­ions and state­ments that will give reform­ers pause. For exam­ple, one pros­e­cu­tor com­ment­ed that con­se­quences are espe­cial­ly impor­tant for youth who come from dys­func­tion­al homes,” an out­look that runs the risk of bak­ing in implic­it bias­es and exac­er­bat­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in how youth are sanc­tioned. The Casey Foun­da­tion strong­ly sup­ports poli­cies and prac­tices that elim­i­nate dis­par­i­ties and the impact of implic­it bias on jus­tice-involved youth and their families.

Anoth­er dis­con­nect revolves around charg­ing youth as adults. This issue proved divi­sive” for TPPF’s inter­vie­wees; one of them com­plains that laws that man­date charg­ing youth in crim­i­nal court are tak­ing the deci­sion out of our hands.” On the oth­er hand, the pol­i­cy guide­lines strong­ly sup­port pros­e­cu­tors’ author­i­ty to direct­ly trans­fer youth’s cas­es to crim­i­nal court. How­ev­er, research informs and under­girds the basic premise of the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem: Youth are very dif­fer­ent from adults and require age-appro­pri­ate respons­es. This argues against try­ing youth as adults at all, let alone leav­ing the deci­sion sole­ly to the prosecutor.

Pros­e­cu­tors are the most pow­er­ful actors in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Our pow­er is vir­tu­al­ly bound­less,” stat­ed then-pros­e­cu­tor Adam Foss in a TED talk last year. Foss said he has learned the pow­er of the pros­e­cu­tor to change lives, instead of ruin­ing them.” In that talk — and months lat­er at a Foun­da­tion con­ven­ing of JDAI deep-end sites — Foss chal­lenged pros­e­cu­tors to be inno­va­tors who help peo­ple rather than focus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on con­vic­tions and incar­cer­a­tion. He cit­ed com­pelling exam­ples of young peo­ple who were giv­en sup­port instead of incar­cer­a­tion and suc­cess­ful­ly turned their lives around.

Foss is not alone in pro­claim­ing that pros­e­cu­tors have a cru­cial role in trans­form­ing juve­nile justice.

As Adam Foss and these reports and guide­lines demon­strate, pros­e­cu­tors are not mono­lith­ic in their views and approach­es. Despite some­times seri­ous dif­fer­ences of opin­ion with reform­ers, pros­e­cu­tors can be — and some have been — allies in the work of trans­form­ing juve­nile justice.

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