Professors Endorse Top Judge?s Efforts to Divert Juvenile Offenders from Life Behind Bars
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New York, May 7, 2010—A call by New York’s top judge to spend more money on probation services for youthful offenders has been endorsed by juvenile justice experts at Columbia Law School, who say such an approach can keep more children away from a life of crime.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the state must drastically rethink how the justice system treats juvenile offenders. “Of the many emerging challenges facing the courts and the legal profession in this state, none is more daunting than transforming a juvenile justice system that is failing badly,” Lippman wrote in the May 3 edition of the New York Law Journal.
“Judge Lippman’s deep concern for juvenile offenders and alarm at their current treatment must be applauded,” said Jane Spinak, Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law and co-founder of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, which currently represents adolescents aging out of foster care. “Effective diversion services are most likely to keep youth, especially youth of color, from the need for any court intervention.”
Not only should probation be the norm for juveniles accused of minor offenses, Lippman wrote, there is a need for more community-based programs that provide drug and mental health treatment, remedial education and other services.
“Probation is central to a network of juvenile justice institutions and services that mobilize resources to help teenagers and their families to avoid legal trouble,” said Jeffrey Fagan, Professor of Law and Epidemiology. “As the hub of this network, probation has a unique authority to leverage resources, and to identify and stimulate the development of resources that may be weak or not yet even in place.”
Indeed, Lippman cited a 2008 state report on probation that found low- and moderate-risk offenders who receive community-based services are less likely to commit another crime. In contrast, a state task force last year found 89 percent of boys put in juvenile detention commit additional crimes. Lippman said that was troubling, given that a majority behind bars had committed misdemeanor-level offenses and could be helped by probation services.
“Recent research demonstrates the effectiveness in reducing recidivism by several community-based programs that intervene intensively with delinquent youths and their families,” said Elizabeth Scott, Harold R. Medina Professor of Law and co-author of the award-winning book Rethinking Juvenile Justice.
Lippman cautioned while probation is the better way to go, judges must be sure that local probation departments are adequately staffed and can ensure sentences are complied with. Unfortunately, he wrote, probation has long been an underfunded “stepchild” of the justice system. He said the $210,000 annual cost to house a youth in juvenile detention has yielded “abysmal” results.
“Improving probation services, as Judge Lippman emphasizes, is essential,” Scott said, but just as important is providing resources to assure that these programs are available as they are the key to successful community-based policies.”
Lippman is pushing a proposal, which would need legislative approval, to allow the judiciary to assume the executive branch’s oversight and budgeting of juvenile probation. He said that was appropriate given how inadequate probation services affect the courts.
However, before that happens, Spinak said, the role of the executive and judicial branches for how probation operates in the future must first be spelled out.
“Family court judges must retain authority to hold probation services accountable for their work,” she said. “Advocates for youth must be able to rely on the judge’s impartiality when imposing any sanction, including probation services.”
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