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Outside of ND Efforts, Federal Overhaul of Juvenile Justice Proposed

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021   

FARGO, N.D. -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers is introducing a package of bills to make the federal criminal-justice system more fair and age-appropriate for children and teens. It comes amid similar efforts in North Dakota.

The federal reforms include ending sentences of life without parole for children, while establishing a minimum age for prosecuting them.

Xavier McElrath-Bey, co-executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said by the time he was 13 years old, he had 19 arrests and seven convictions. He pointed out kids often are criminalized for the choices they make in response to trauma.

"I was hungry. I was living in poverty," McElrath-Bey recounted. "I see those as opportunities where they could have said, 'Wait a minute, why is this 9-year-old kid stealing from the store? Why is this 9-year-old kid taking quarters out of parking meters?'"

In 2019, of the more than 700,000 children across the country who were arrested, more than 200,000 were 14 or younger, according to a report last year from Human Rights for Kids, which gave North Dakota high marks for laws that protect the rights of children in the justice system.

This spring, the Legislature approved a series of reforms in this area, included in a bill recently signed by Gov. Doug Burgum.

As for the proposed federal legislation, McElrath-Bey agreed it could be an important first and crucial step to ensure kids are viewed as untapped potential, no matter what mistakes they've made.

"No child is born bad. It's just that simple," McElrath-Bey remarked. "If a child is arrested, it's our fault. It's our responsibility. Yes, we hold them accountable, but in age-appropriate, trauma-informed, and most importantly racially equitable ways."

Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said it's encouraging the federal government is taking a close look at the human rights of children.

"It's time to dismantle punitive provisions in the federal and state laws and rebuild the progressive and restorative system of justice that was enshrined a century ago when the U.S. designed the world's first juvenile court and was a leader in human rights for children," Clarke urged.

Meanwhile, a key legislative supporter of North Dakota's reforms describes them as the first major update to the state's juvenile-justice laws since 1969.


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