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Changes Could Be Coming to Federal Juvenile Justice Laws

PHOTO: Changes could be coming to federal laws on juvenile incarceration, as Congress is expected to take up a revision of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Wisconsin juvenile advocates have long said locking up kids is not the answer to the problem. Photo courtesy of justicenotjails.org.
PHOTO: Changes could be coming to federal laws on juvenile incarceration, as Congress is expected to take up a revision of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Wisconsin juvenile advocates have long said locking up kids is not the answer to the problem. Photo courtesy of justicenotjails.org.
December 22, 2014

MADISON, Wis. - Just as changes may be coming to Wisconsin's laws on juvenile offenders in the upcoming legislative session, changes may be happening at the federal level as well. Since 1996, Wisconsin law has required that 17 year olds automatically be sent to adult court, which child advocates say cuts them off from a number of resources available in the juvenile justice system. That law may change.

Next year, Congress is also expected to take up the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which among other things, would provide incentives to states to lock up fewer children. Investigative journalist Nell Bernstein says it's time to get rid of juvenile detention facilities.

"We have to unlock ourselves from this concept that the first-line response when a young person does something we don't want them to do, is to remove them from home and community, and place them in a locked institution," she says.

Advocates in Wisconsin have long held that locking kids up doesn't work, and they point out the vast majority of kids incarcerated in the U.S. are being held for nonviolent offenses. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, there are about 1,000 juveniles in Wisconsin jails.

Updating the federal law may mean giving states incentives to rely less on incarceration, and improving conditions and educational services for incarcerated youth, elements Wisconsin's juvenile justice advocates also support. Bernstein says years ago, if a kid acted up in school, they went to the principal's office. But now, they go to a school-based police officer; the most common point of entry to the criminal justice system.

"There are not two kinds of kids, 'good' and 'bad,'" she says. "It's a developmental phase, and what the research also shows is those kids who go through that developmental phase, commit those illegal acts but are not incarcerated - those kids grow up, and grow out of it."

Bernstein says there is research to back up her belief that new, more effective techniques are available to redirect kids. Wisconsin's juvenile advocates say the emphasis should be on working with the family to keep a young person in their home and community, where the underlying issues can be addressed.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI