DOJ Juvenile Justice Unit Faces Big Staff Cuts

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has only 60 employees, but one-fourth of its positions may not be filled after attrition. That would reduce efforts to insure state compliance with a federal law providing juvenile justice aid.

The Trump administration plan to cut thousands of Department of Justice (DOJ) positions may mean a 25 percent or more reduction in the already tiny 60-person federal agency focused on juvenile justice, reports the Chronicle of Social Change.

Marcy Mistrett of the Campaign for Youth Justice said the size of the proposed cuts and their potential impact on the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) were “alarming, given the amount of work and content expertise necessary to properly administer the duties of the OJJDP office. ”

She added: “It is also inconsistent with the direction of Congress, [which] has authorized higher levels for the program given its imminent reauthorization.”

The news comes as advocates work feverishly to pass the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), a 44-year-old law that trades federal grants for compliance with basic juvenile justice standards.

And it follows on the heels of other moves by the DOJ to de-emphasize the previous administration’s juvenile justice reform efforts. In October, the department issued employees of the OJJDP with “language guidance” rules suggesting that the word “improvement (or similar rewording)” replace all mentions of “reform.”

Employees were also directed to describe the Obama-era “Smart on Juvenile Justice” initiative, launched in 2014, as “system improvement work”—replacing original language that described the aim of the program as an effort to “identify and implement reforms to ensure federal laws are enforced fairly and efficiently.

The Justice Department aims to make the cuts over the next 18 months through attrition, relying on retirements and early retirement buyouts. If it comes to layoffs, the likely scenario will be a “last in-first out” policy.

The OJJDP oversees funds related to juvenile justice, mentoring and efforts to help missing and exploited children. At the heart of the agency is compliance with the JJDPA, which was passed in 1974 and lays out core standards for juvenile justice practices, such as not locking up youth for committing status offenses, crimes like truancy that would not be a crime for an adult.

One advocate said that staffing cuts would prompt the agency to “greatly loosen enforcement” of JJPDA compliance, especially the law’s requirement that states examine disproportionate minority involvement in the justice system.

In an early appraisal of the Trump administration approach to juvenile justice, Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, warned that evidence-based strategies would get “less traction” –placing more of the burden to undertake reform on states.


WA Teen Crime Plan Persists Despite Murder Case

Seattle prosecutor Dan Satterberg continues “peacemaking circles” approach to juvenile crime despite murder charges against one of its participants.

Robbery suspect Diego Carballo-Oliveros, 16, appeared capable of considerable violence and faced the possibility of years locked in a Seattle juvenile jail. He could have been the ideal test case, the kid who proved that a therapeutic approach to juvenile justice could catch the most challenging teens before they graduated to a lifetime in prison. Instead, he became the boy who nearly dashed King County’s fledgling effort to confront youth crime in new ways, The Seattle Times reports. Chief Juvenile Prosecutor Jimmy Hung found himself exasperated by the endlessly repeating cycle of lockup, release, new charges and more lockup.

“Peacemaking circles” — a lengthy process designed to increase empathy and strengthen bonds between kids and their communities — offered the hope of something different. Prosecutors had already used it with two young men facing robbery and harassment charges, and both had cleared their records. Hung took a chance on Carballo-Oliveros, who told 30 adults at his pre-sentencing circle that he  understood the harm he’d done. Two weeks later, he was charged with stabbing a 15-year-old to death a month earlier. The case has not deterred King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who believes the approach — focused on healing rather than punishment, self-reflection rather than incarceration — offers the best chance for stemming juvenile crime. Each circle includes many hours of sitting in a circle with counselors, family members, victim advocates, educators and a juvenile-court judge.


Studying Gang Tweets Could Reduce Gun Violence, Researchers Say

A Columbia University study argues that studying aggressive tweets among gang members, particularly after a loss, could cut short the cycle of gang-revenge killings if grief counselors and other mental health services intervene in time.

Could studying gang members’ social media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook, reduce gun violence?

Authors of a study published this month in NPJ Digital Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, found that aggressive tweets among gang members usually come two days days after they tweet about loss.

This two-day grace period can—and should—be utilized by grief counselors and other mental health services to reduce the likelihood of gang violence, the authors from Columbia University argued.

“They are using Twitter to talk about their exposure to violence and they are using the (social media) platforms to cope,” the study’s lead author, Desmond Patton, told The Chicago Tribune.

“The way this is spun in the media is there are all these violent comments happening. What I am seeing is people who initially are grieving and over time those comments became aggressive,” he continued. 

Two days after a loss tweet, the study found a 21 percent increase in the expected number of aggressive tweets.

However, loss tweets did not appear predictive of aggressive tweets three or more days out—demonstrating the short span of time counselors and mental health personal would have to intervene.

Researchers looked at over 2,256 tweets from self-identified gang members and 230 unique Twitter accounts.

Patton, an assistant professor in Columbia’s School of Social Work, used the story of Gakirah Barnes as a basis for the study. 

Four years ago, Gakirah Barnes, a Chicago gang member, learning a friend had been slain, posted a praying hands emoji on her Twitter account lamenting the death.

Barnes’ grief quickly turned to anger. Within minutes she again took to social media, vowing revenge on her rivals — even if they weren’t the ones responsible for killing her friend.

Four days later, Barnes, just 17, was dead.  She was shot as she stood with friends on a street in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The online corridors where gang members taunt and threaten rivals has become an increasing area of study, and judges in the criminal justice system have taken note.

Last week, when it came time to sentence a teen convicted in a Chicago armed robbery, a Cook County juvenile court judge told the young man to wipe his Facebook feed and any other social media accounts clean of references to “gangs, guns and drugs” and refrain from posting on those topics while on probation. 

See also: Judge’s Edict: Wipe Gang Images From Facebook

While the work of Columbia researchers studying social media and gang violence is not yet finished, they conclude they already have found at least one important trend in the tweets — the aggressive posts that draw so much attention are often preceded by something more like a cry for help, which should be met with an immediate response by trained professionals.

The study can be found here.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


In Germany, It’s Hard to Find a Young Adult in Prison

Deprivation of liberty is a “last resort” in the German juvenile justice system. Instead, as two US researchers discovered on the last leg of their fact-finding trip in Europe, the priorities are diversion, rehabilitation and minimized interventions for emerging adults under 21 who run afoul of the law.

Germany is probably the “grandfather” of special treatment for emerging adults in all of Europe. In 1953, German law was changed to allow youth up to age 21 when they committed their offense to be tried as juveniles.

Responding to the “fatherless generation” of young people following World War II, German leaders decided not to institutionalize youth in great numbers; but rather to rehabilitate and shield them from some of the harsher aspects of their adult system.

But the most far-reaching changes have emerged slowly.

Initially, the percentage of youth ages 18, 19 and 20 retained in juvenile court hovered at around 20 percent, while the rest were sentenced as adults. That was similar to today’s figures in the Netherlands and Croatia—the two other nations we visited on our European tour.

But steadily, over the years, as German judges and prosecutors gained more faith in this approach, they used the juvenile system more and more frequently for emerging adults who had committed more serious offenses.

By the time we visited, 66 percent of emerging adults who ran afoul of the law were sentenced as juveniles, including over 90 percent of those who had committed homicide and rape. The highest rate of sentencing these young people as adults was for traffic offenses, which often result in fines.

Under the juvenile law, young people can receive sentences of up to 10 years. But they rarely do. Fewer than one percent receive sentences of five to 10 years; fewer than five percent receive sentences of between three and five years.

Parenthetically, Germany’s adult system is still a moderate one by comparison to the US, both in terms of their incarceration rate (76 per 100,000 vs. 693 per 100,000) and prison conditions.

Youth under age 14 are not considered criminally responsible and, prior to age 18, youth can never be tried or sentenced under adult law. This higher minimum age is not unusual in Europe. Age 12 is the international standard and is the Dutch age of responsibility, while in Croatia, the minimum age is 14 like Germany.

Interestingly, the Massachusetts minimum age will rise to 12 if pending legislation (see below) is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, making it the highest minimum juvenile court age in the US.

This combination of factors essentially pushes the entire German youth justice system upward to be more of an older juvenile/young adult system, with younger youth either diverted or handled by lighter touches administered by social services.

Neustrelitz prison

The working farm in Neustrelitz youth prison, Photo courtesy the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

For example, in one of the youth prisons we visited, the vast majority of youth were older than 18. While it is technically possible for 14- or 15-year-olds to be sentenced there, everyone we interviewed said they are a rare sight. Their mixing with the older adolescents was not considered a problem, even among the youth we spoke to.

The German system prioritizes diversion and minimized interventions, mediation and restorative practices, and educational community sanctions. Community service and direct payments can be geared to repaying victims through labor or even direct compensation. Deprivation of liberty is a last resort.

In a hearing our delegation witnessed, a young adult with several prior involvements with the law fired a realistic-looking starter pistol while drunk in the Berlin subway system on New Year’s Eve around 15 months ago. The courts attempted mediation with the victim—a woman who was nearby when he fired the shot which halted her train—but she had moved her residence and was unavailable.

This took time, during which the youth was at liberty getting his life together and staying on the straight and narrow.

The victim attended the hearing, a combination of trial and sentencing, during which she testified. The youth had no representation. In cases unlikely to result in youth imprisonment, representation is not required.

The youth was convicted and fined several hundred Euro; the judge took his income into account in setting the fine. The victim was offered, but turned down, 100 Euro in compensation for pain and suffering. By all appearances, she harbored no ill will towards the youth being tried; they actually entered the courtroom together chatting in a friendly manner. Instead of directly compensating the victim, the judge ordered a portion of the youth’s fine to go to a victims’ compensation fund.

The mission of the German system is clear.

Children (under 14 years), juveniles (14-17) and young adults (18-20) have the right to support and education and to be protected in their personal development by the child and youth welfare agencies. Youth services are established at the local community level, where priority is given to private non-profit organizations which must be accredited by the state-level youth welfare departments of the ministries of social affairs⸺analogous to our state child welfare agencies.

The data and relevant legal codes above were provided to us by our gracious host, Prof. Frieder Dünkel of Greifswald University. Dr. Dünkel arranged meetings with judicial, correctional, legal and community officials and was our guide, interpreter and source of information throughout the trip.

He also co-authored an excellent article about European approaches to working with emerging adults, a must-read for anyone interested in this subject.

The Neustrelitz Youth Prison

The German system’s educational and rehabilitative ethic also holds true when youth are incarcerated. According to Germany’s Youth Courts Law, when a youth is confined, it should “arouse the youth’s sense of self respect,” “be structured in an educational manner” and “help the youth to overcome those difficulties which contributed to his commission of the criminal offense”.


The Young Offender Institution of Neustrelitz (Prison) Photo from the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

The rehabilitative ethic of Germany’s youth system was on full display when we toured the Neustrelitz Youth Prison accompanied by Joerg Jesse, Director General of Prisons and Probation for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Director General Jesse can be seen on this 60 Minutes segment discussing the adult prisons he manages.

Staff there and throughout the German system are required to undergo two years of training prior to working as correctional officers.

As noted above, the population of the facility was the rough equivalent of a US prison incarcerating young adults, rather than a juvenile facility, even though the youth in it were all incarcerated pursuant to juvenile law. Eighty-five percent of the youth were older than 18 and their average age was 20.

Since it’s not easy for a youth to get a prison term in Germany, young people tended to be incarcerated for more violent offenses than youth in U.S. juvenile facilities. Care needs to be taken in cross-national comparisons; violence, particularly gun violence, is far less prevalent in Germany than in the US, for example.

The staff were highly professional, and treatment of the young people was very much normalized, particularly when compared to US adult prisons where many of these young people would likely be if they similarly offended in America. The level of vocational programming was astonishing, with professional woodworking, metal working, culinary instruction and farming (including award-winning rabbit husbandry) dominating the youths’ daily programming.

The level of freedom offered young people was extraordinary by US standards. For example, youth in the facility served us a tasty meal shortly after arrival with real knives and forks. Sharp equipment in the vocational shops was everywhere; and nowhere was there the sense of fear and heavy correctional hardware, such as pepper spray, solitary confinement, and strip searching, that dominates the US correctional landscape.

youth cell

Room/Cell at Neustrelitz Photo courtesy the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

Clearly, not only were the Germans incarcerating fewer of their young adults, but they were incarcerating them in better conditions than our adult systems.

What was remarkable to me was how much these predominantly young adult facilities resembled some of the more well-run juvenile systems in the US. The Massachusetts system, for example, has a long history of running decent and rehabilitative juvenile facilities, reserving secure care for youth with the most serious offenses and a continuum of community programs for those with less serious offenses/prior records.

Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) Commissioner Forbes, a member of our delegation, informed us that the state had about 100 youth in locked secure custody—in a state of 6.9 million—mostly in small living units, at the time of our delegation.

Having toured the Massachusetts system and Neustrelitz, the culture and rehabilitative ethic were strong in both. I have little problem imagining DYS being able to work with emerging adults in Massachusetts either in community programming or secure care, especially since they already have youth up to age 21 in their custody. Having the capacity to beef up their vocational programming would be important, as the numbers of older youth would grow.

Final Thoughts

Emerging adults are more immature than their older counterparts. They’re greater risk-takers, less future-oriented, and are more volatile in emotionally charged settings, especially around their peers. Putting further strain on their developmental immaturity, adult roles that help young people, particularly young males, mature out of criminality–through marriage and steady work–are available much later than they were for previous generations; certainly much later than they were for my generation in the late 1970s.

About one out of every five people entering US prisons are young adults. They have the worst outcomes. Racial disparities in prison roles for them exceed even the outrageous disparities that plague U.S. incarceration overall.

This is a population that needs special attention.

Perhaps that’s why the Council of Europe recommends to its constituent nations:

Reflecting the extended transition to adulthood, it should be possible for young adults under the age of 21 to be treated in a way comparable to juveniles and to be subject to the same interventions.

Several jurisdictions, including and perhaps especially Massachusetts, are looking into special treatment for emerging adults when they break the law, ranging from raising the juvenile court age; to special facilities, courts and caseloads; to special programming.

Clearly, there are substantial cultural differences between the US and Europe, just as there are substantial differences between US states. No one expects to go to Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands and borrow their systems wholesale, any more than people expect the systems in Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin to be the same.

But that doesn’t mean that such delegations have nothing to teach their visitors.

When we debriefed at the end of our journey and participants were asked to give their thoughts on what we had witnessed, one respondent said simply, “possibilities.” By this, he explained that while no system could be adopted whole cloth, the tour had opened his eyes to possibilities that we need to explore for this population, a population that is both challenging and full of opportunities.

I hope this series has opened up similar possibilities to those who have read through it. I’m happy to answer any questions, if I’m able.

A Note About Massachusetts

When Lael Chester and I completed our three-country tour, we did so with a delegation of 20 representatives from the Massachusetts legislature, judiciary, prosecution, defense, law enforcement, executive branch, youth corrections, advocacy and treatment community.

Interestingly, they are busy positioning the Commonwealth to become the “grandmother” of emerging adult reforms in the US, although they’re vying with several other jurisdictions in doing so.


Visiting Massachusetts delegation with Judge Tobias Kaehne, Director of the Berlin Youth Court, at the courthouse in Berlin: Photo courtesy the Justice Lab at Columbia University

This was as smart, hard-working and decent a group of officials as one could ask for. They were and are involved in innovating with this population of young people in myriad ways. Since 2015, after the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice issued a report I co-authored with Bruce Western examining the US response to emerging adults, Roca’s CEO Molly Baldwin and I have been convening key stakeholders to foment innovation in this space, many of whom came on the Germany trip.

Also in 2015, MassINC issued a report on emerging adults and held a forum I spoke at along with Sen. Will Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Judiciary Joint Committee. Senator Brownsberger joined us in Germany; check out his excellent blog post about Germany’s approach. The Senator and I have had ongoing conversations about this population each time we’ve run into one another since the MassINC event.

A host of potential reforms have flowed from—or at least corresponded with—this vibrant set of convenings, as well as from Mass leaders’ own creativity:

  • the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants announced at a MassINC event last year plans to create specialized court sessions in the District Courts for emerging adults (Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Mass Trial Court, joined the Germany delegation);
  • Middlesex County Sheriff, Peter Koutoujian recently opened a specialized living unit in the Billerica House of Correction in consultation with the Vera Institute of Justice, and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins (who was on this trip) is also planning to open a specialized unit in his jail later this spring; and
  • The non-profit Citizens for Juvenile Justice (whose executive director, Naoka Carey, joined the trip) has a state-wide advocacy campaign geared towards raising the age of juvenile court to 21. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s Department of Youth Services, or DYS, (whose Commissioner, Peter Forbes, participated in the trip) already allows youth who “age out” to voluntarily continue receiving services beyond the expiration of their terms. Programs like Roca and UTEC (Yotem Zeira and Gregg Croteau, respectively, represented those organizations on the trip) exclusively service an emerging adult population.

This year, the Massachusetts Legislature, six of whose members joined the Germany tour, grappled with several bills to raise the age of juvenile court to either 19 or 21. Literally the day before leaving for Germany, a conference committee of the Massachusetts House and Senate announced a 121-page criminal justice bill, the most sweeping reforms in Massachusetts in decades, which they passed overwhelmingly the week after returning from Germany!

While raising the upper age of juvenile court past 18 did not make it out of committee (although it had passed the Senate), the committee’s provisions affecting emerging adults included allowing youth up to age 21 to expunge their felony and misdemeanor records if they remain crime-free for 7 or 3 years, respectively.

The committee also formed a task force to study and make recommendations specific to emerging adults – an age cohort with whom a recent report found the Massachusetts criminal justice system has its worst outcomes (for more about that bill, check out this Boston Globe editorial which ran while we were in Germany and which mentions the trip).

To say that this group was focused on this issue is a gross understatement.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi is senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab. He has served as New York City Probation Commissioner and director of juvenile corrections for Washington, DC. This is the final installment of a series of columns reporting on a trip taken with his colleague to explore the innovative ways three European countries–Croatia, the Netherlands and Germany–respond to offending by emerging adults. To read his earlier columns, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Philadelphia Judges Reject Some of New DA’s Plea Deals

It’s rare for a judge to reject a plea bargain, but it’s happening in some cases involving juvenile lifers negotiated by new Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is seeking shorter sentences for people convicted of crimes by offering deals at or below the minimum sentencing guidelines. Some judges are rejecting the deals, reports The policy is being tested in the cases of about to 180 juvenile lifers awaiting new sentences under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found automatic life-without-parole for minors unconstitutional. Krasner has offered deals making the lifers immediately eligible for parole, but judges are turning some of them down.

That’s left  observers wondering about the fate not only of the juvenile lifers, but also of Krasner’s progressive vision on sentencing reform. “This court will not impose the negotiated sentence,” Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis said in the case of Avery Talmadge, who had agreed on a 22-years-to-life deal over a 1996 fatal street fight. The judge turned down two other similar deals. Despite the vast size of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, only about 2,500 cases per year go to trial. Four times that many are settled through negotiated pleas. Each one requires judicial approval. Experts say it’s extraordinarily rare for judges to reject such deals.


Cleveland Sets Juvenile Justice Reforms After Riot

Nearly three months after a riot at the juvenile detention center, officials in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County said they would create a Community Intervention Center to match youth in the criminal justice system with critical services such as mental health evaluations.

Cleveland’s head juvenile court judge announced reforms to transform how the county deals with children accused of crimes, reports The most ambitious change is the creation of a Community Intervention Center to match children who come in contact with the criminal justice system to critical services such as mental health evaluations, healthcare and trauma counseling. It will seek to keep low-level offenders out of jail, said Administrative Judge Kristin Sweeney. The intervention center will be modeled after a similar program in Dayton and will be funded with grant money.

The reforms were announced nearly three months after a Jan. 8 riot at the detention center brought a sense of urgency to behind-the-scenes discussions to reform Cuyahoga County’s juvenile justice system. They seek to preserve public safety while considering issues surrounding young offenders who have easy access to firearms, underfunded mental health systems, a lack economic and educational opportunity, absent parents and racism, Sweeney said. “The juvenile justice system can magnify these struggles and inflict tremendous harm in its own right if we aren’t careful,” she said. “We can help, and we can harm.” Other reforms include the hiring of more guards at the detention center and a partnership with Cuyahoga Community College to train all guards in de-escalation tactics. Some county officials floated the possibility of having the sheriff’s department, which runs the downtown jail that houses adult offenders, take over operations of the juvenile detention center. That idea was met with resistance from juvenile justice experts.


How Croatia’s ‘Off-Ramps’ Keep Young Adults Out of Prison

Thanks to a juvenile justice strategy that prioritizes education over incarceration, the tiny Balkan nation holds less than 30 young people behind bars. Two American researchers say the US could profit from a similar approach. 

For a nation that is struggling economically, Croatia has still managed to fund and create a decent continuum of options for its juveniles and youth, including emerging adults up to age 21, perhaps because it spends so little on incarceration.

As part of our three-nation study tour of European approaches to working with young, court-involved adults, I traveled with Lael Chester, director of Columbia University’s Emerging Adult Project at the Justice Lab, from the Netherlands to Zagreb, Croatia where we had the opportunity to meet with many of the key stakeholders involved in the juvenile and young adult systems there.

Once again, people were enormously generous with their time and, as in the Netherlands, their coffee, tea and pastries too.

We visited the Dugave Center, a seemingly decent and caring government-run program in Zagreb that had in it several elements of a continuum of care either in its headquarters or nearby, ranging from before- or after-school day treatment, counseling and small-scale group care to tutoring and educational programming.

That said, they still seem to be working out issues that many Americans are grappling with as they think through the possibility of allowing youth older than 18 to be tried as juveniles.

Service providers and some legal professionals were not comfortable including youth older than 18 in group or residential settings with youth under 18. So, while it was technically possible for youth over 18 to be ordered to the Dugave Center, staff there indicated it rarely happens.

While program staff members were very supportive of including youth over age 18 in juvenile law, they did not think they should be mixed in either residential or non-residential group programming with younger individuals. Other programs existed in Croatia which did mix juveniles with young adults, but we were unable to visit them because of time constraints.

Map of Croatia by Captain Blood via Wikkipedia

Zagreb is by far the largest city in Croatia, with a population of around 790,000 residents (more in the metro area) in a nation of 4.2 million. By comparison, the next largest city, Split, has 180,000 residents.

Since its inception in 1918, juvenile law in Croatia has focused on what in Europe are dubbed “educational measures,” which roughly translates into what Americans would call a rehabilitative mission.

In 1959, special provisions were included in Croatian law for emerging adults ages 18 to 21, making additional rehabilitative measures available and reducing sentence lengths for them (while otherwise trying, sentencing and incarcerating them as adults).

During the Croatian war for independence from 1991 to 1995, there was an increase in juvenile crime. But that didn’t result in tougher juvenile crime measures. Quite the contrary: In 1993, a national commission looked into other countries’ juvenile justice approaches (including Germany’s) and recommended reforms to Croatia’s juvenile law.

This resulted in the passage of the Croatian Juvenile Courts Act (JCA) in 1997.

Among other things, the JCA prohibits trying youth under age 18 in adult court and allows youth up to age 21 to be sentenced as juveniles; increases and codifies diversion (which now happens in slightly more than half of all indicted cases); and creates a range of juvenile “educational” measures. Youth are rarely sanctioned with confinement in a youth prison as the main goal of the JCA is youth rehabilitation.

The JCA, of which a dated English-language version is available on line, nicely lays out the Croatian system in one, easy-to-understand code. While it is a code unique to this small Balkan nation’s circumstances, it’s a must-read for any policy wonks considering revising their approach to justice for emerging adults (or juveniles, for that matter).

The JCA is based on Croatian stakeholders’ interpretation of the research that indicates that youth and emerging adults are developmentally and neurologically different than more mature adults. It lays out a series of “off ramps”, first to prosecution through diversion, followed by alternatives to confinement through educational measures like counseling, community service, juvenile probation, special “orders” (conditions), day treatment, placement in open community settings (like group homes), or short term confinement.

Under the JCA, imprisonment is used very rarely. Youth under age 14 cannot be prosecuted at all; youth under 16 cannot be sent to youth prisons; and those under age 18 cannot be tried as adults. University of Zagreb Professor Neven Ricijaš, PhD, estimates that there are only about 20-30 juveniles and young adults in youth prisons in all of Croatia.

Records of youth handled under juvenile law are always confidential in Croatia. Even adult records are more difficult to publicly access than in the U.S. Adults in Croatia often have opportunities to expunge their records after a time, even if they have been to prison.


Zagreb. Photo by Mario Fajt via Flickr

In general, criminal records for adults in the Netherlands, Croatia and Germany are far less publicly available than they are in the U.S.

In some ways, this strengthens the argument for treating young adults in America as juveniles. It would generally increase confidentiality protections if emerging adults were tried and sentenced under juvenile law. Because of the more open approach to adult criminal records in the U.S., if emerging adults were sentenced as juveniles, it would be an even greater shield from the harsh collateral consequences of U.S. adult court convictions than in Europe, where the consequences of an adult conviction are either less severe, the records less publicly available, or both.

As with Germany and the Netherlands, the Croatians attached a network of non-legal professionals—social pedagogues, social workers and psychologists—to their court systems to advise courts and prosecutors on developmental issues pertaining to juveniles and young adults. These non-legal professionals not only interview and provide recommendations to the courts/prosecutors, but they also stay with cases post-sentencing to check up on whether the court’s orders are being followed and to arrange for post-sentencing follow-up hearings, if necessary.

As with the Dutch, Croatian officials found this assessing, advising and follow-up function enormously helpful.

Like the Netherlands, we were fortunate to be able to speak with Professor Ricijaš, a judge (Lana Peto Kujundžić, PhD), a prosecutor (Mirta Kuharić), a social pedagogue (Matea Babić), and Zagreb’s probation director (Matea Srsen).

The people we spoke with were very supportive of having the option to sentence young adults under juvenile law, largely to be able to provide educational opportunities and mitigated sentencing to a population they still considered to be immature and capable of change.

We are very thankful for their generosity of time and expertise.

On to Berlin next, where we will take a similar tour of the German system with around 20 legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, juvenile justice officials, advocates, and service providers from Massachusetts—a state that this year has seen numerous legislative proposals to raise the age of its juvenile court to 21 or 19.

In a recently released 100-page justice reform bill, a House and Senate conference committee did not include a provision raising the court’s jurisdiction past 18, but proposed several provisions specific to emerging adults, including enhanced expungement opportunities for youth up to age 21 and a task force to study approaches to working with court-involved emerging adults.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Editor’s Note: See also Raising Age to 23: It Works for the Dutch

Vincent Schiraldi is senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab. He has served as New York City Probation Commissioner and director of juvenile corrections for Washington, DC. An earlier blog describing his European trip can be accessed here. He welcomes comments from readers.


Judges’ Order to Teens: ‘Clear Your Social Media’

Are judges violating youthful convicts’ First Amendment rights by ordering them to remove references to “gangs, guns and drugs” from social media postings? The courts in Illinois are divided.

When it came time to sentence the teen convicted in a Chicago armed robbery, a Cook County juvenile court judge imposed what has become a common restriction in the digital age. The 17-year-old was given three years of probation but was told to wipe his Facebook feed and any other social media accounts clean of references to “gangs, guns and drugs” and refrain from posting on those topics while on probation, reports the Chicago Tribune. “I need you to clear your social media,” said Judge Kristal Royce Rivers. Recognizing social media’s power to amplify gang disputes and relying on Illinois law that allows restricting the associations of those under court supervision, judges are clamping down on teen defendants’ social media postings.

Teens pose with guns, throw gang signs for the camera and offer narcotics for sale on their Facebook pages. For the last four years, the county’s juvenile probation department has been generating social media reports to help judges address the issue. Appellate courts have split over how such orders should be drawn without infringing on free-speech rights. Those boundaries may eventually be set by the Illinois Supreme Court. Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Toomin’s office drafted language for judges to use at sentencing, barring “any photos, videos or messages promoting street gang activity.” “The key question here is — Is there a sufficient justification for putting this restriction on defendants?” said University of Chicago law Prof. Geoffrey Stone, a First Amendment expert. “It’s like saying, ‘We’ll let you out on probation but you can’t go in this neighborhood.’ It’s perfectly sensible that this is what (judges are) trying to do in the complicated world of social media.”


Raising Juvenile Age to 23 Produces Promising Results for Dutch: US Researchers

The results of 2014 legislation in the Netherlands are still inconclusive, but two Americans examining juvenile justice programs in Europe say early data suggest that the presence of older youth in juvenile court may promote more leniency for 16-17-year-olds.

Can The Netherlands teach Americans anything about how to address young, court-involved adults?

My colleague Lael Chester, Director of the Justice Lab’s Emerging Adult Project, and I recently spent two days in Rotterdam and The Hague touring the Dutch justice system as part of our exploration of how Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands work with young adults who become involved in the justice system.

We focused on the Netherlands’ approach to sentencing young people up to age 23 under juvenile law and, on the rare occasions they are incarcerated, confining them in juvenile facilities.

The Netherlands has had a separate juvenile code and judiciary for juveniles since the beginning of the 20th Century, and has debated special treatment for young adults since the 1950s.

In 2011, conservative Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice Fred Teeven proposed to raise the age at which emerging adults could be treated as juveniles.

After several years of debate, the Adolescent Criminal Law passed in 2014, allowing youths whose crimes occurred prior to their 23rd birthday to be included in the juvenile system. Ironically, this wasn’t much of a legal change: it has been possible to sentence youth up to age 21 under Dutch juvenile law since 1965, but in practice this provision was rarely used.

Due to a quirk in adult vs. juvenile court funding, cases of youth over age 18 originate in adult, rather than juvenile court, which has limited the impact of the law. Some of those we interviewed seemed to consider the opportunity to sentence emerging adults under juvenile law as being limited to youth who demonstrated special immaturity, often through borderline IQ levels; to “juvenile” type offenses behavior; and to other indicators of immaturity like living with one’s parents, still being in school, and not yet attaining stable employment.

Dutch emerging adults are specially evaluated by probation and forensic psychologists who recommend whether they should be handled under adult or juvenile law. These evaluations were especially valued by several interviewees.

A range of “educational” options are available for young adults including specialized probation caseloads and rehabilitative programming. And, as mentioned above, if they are treated under juvenile law, they may be incarcerated in juvenile facilities.

A change in state vs. local funding for juvenile programs was enacted in 2015 which may be limiting the impact of the law by making accessibility of programs for juveniles, as one interviewee put it, “a pain in the ass.”

Several of those interviewed agreed, if more gently.

During our tour we interviewed a professor from Erasmus University Rotterdam’s School of Law who is also a part time judge (Jolande uit Beijerse); a full time juvenile judge (Lian Pit); a Rotterdam-area probation official (Ruben Laats); a prosecutor (Rolan van Dongen); a juvenile correctional administrator (Marijke van Genabeek); a defense attorney (Luns Van der Velden) and a group of researchers led by Andre van der Laan, PhD, from the Ministry of Security and Justice.

We toured a youth correctional facility in which young people could be confined for crimes they committed up to age 23. We also had the opportunity to sit in on the trial of an emerging adult and to chat with him before sentencing.

It’s still early, so there’s not much data on outcomes (but thankfully, van der Laan and his colleagues are conducting quasi-experimental research on the Adolescent Criminal Law’s impact).

Although only .9 percent of those 18 through 20 were tried under juvenile law prior to 2014, that percentage has steadily risen to 7.3 percent by 2016. Meanwhile, 1.1 percent of those 21-23 were sentenced as juveniles in 2016.

Dutch youth age 16 and 17 can be tried in adult court for more serious offenses, but that rarely happens.

An argument against raising the age beyond 18 in the U.S. is that crossing that line might make it easier for policymakers to cross the line the other way and try more juveniles as adults.

A counter-argument is that the presence of older youth in juvenile court may promote more leniency for 16 and 17-year-olds who were formerly considered older and more serious in juvenile court.

See also: Raise the Age, But By How Much?

Early results in the Netherlands—and they are early—seem to support the latter argument. Two-tenths of a percent of 16 and 17-year-olds were prosecuted as adults in 2016, down from 2.1 percent in 2014, a 90 percent decline in two years.

Put another way, in 2014, 3.1 percent of 18- to 23-year-olds in the Netherlands were tried as juveniles, while 2.1 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds were tried as adults. By 2016, only .2 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds were tried as adults while 4.7 percent of 18 to 23-year-olds were tried as juveniles.

The Dutch we interviewed were divided as to whether a system that more resembled the German system (where cases of emerging adults up to age 21 originate in juvenile court and two-thirds stay there) is better. Some felt more young adults should be treated in juvenile court; others were comfortable with such treatment being exceptional, while still others were waiting for the evidence to come in.

We’ll be paying close attention.

One final point…

There are about 400 youth incarcerated in public or private, non-profit facilities in the Netherlands, a nation of about 17 million people. That number is dwarfed by the 53,000 youth incarcerated in the U.S., a nation of 326 million.

The number of Dutch juvenile institutions has decreased dramatically from 15 facilities with 2,600 beds in 2007, to only five with 500 beds in 2016, despite adding the possibility of sentencing youth up to age 23 as juveniles.

Juvenile institutions are now under review nationwide, with the intention to switch to a customized system of local, small-scale facilities located near the youths’ own social network, combined with a few national facilities with specialized care and higher security.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

A small-scale pilot was launched in Amsterdam in 2016 providing places for youth who attend school and/or work during the day and return to the shelter in the evening and on weekends.

(Lael and I, along with Harvard Kennedy School student Sibella Mathews, will be publishing a more formal article on those three countries later this year).

I’ll write more from our next stop, Croatia, soon…

Vincent Schiraldi is senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab. He has served as New York City Probation Commissioner and director of juvenile corrections for Washington, DC. An earlier blog describing his European trip can be accessed here. He welcomes comments from readers.


After Years of Failures, FL Gets Juvenile Justice Reforms

A newly approved state Department of Juvenile Justice budget includes money for building, maintenance and program improvements, as well as a 10 percent across-the-board pay raise for lockup and probation officers.

For the first time in a decade, Florida juvenile detention and probation officers will see a bump in their salaries — an increase in the state budget that is part of a series of juvenile justice reforms passed by the Legislature this month, reports the Miami Herald. The 10 percent across-the-board pay raise for lockup and probation officers was included in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s $589.4 million 2019 spending plan, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week. The pay raise was the signature item in a handful of budget requests by DJJ following a Miami Herald investigation, called Fight Club, into agency failures. The budget includes $2 million in “retention bonuses” for direct-care staffers at privately run juvenile programs, where the pay can start under $20,000, in addition to the raises for state employees.

The budget measures include $8 million for raises for all detention and probation officers, together with $2 million in onetime bonuses for direct-care workers at the state’s 53 privately run residential centers; $1 million for new video surveillance equipment; $5.3 million to improve building maintenance and plumbing within the state’s 21 regional detention centers; $6.1 million to expand capacity by 60 beds; and $9.1 million to expand agency prevention and early intervention programs designed to keep troubled kids out of the juvenile justice system.