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ND Still Hopeful About Juvenile-Justice Reforms


Wednesday, March 23, 2022   

The U.S. has made progress in reducing youth incarceration, but a new national report found there are still issues with confinement.

In North Dakota, stakeholders feel the state is on the right path after adopting reforms, while also offering a cautionary note. The report from the Sentencing Project argued while there has been a decadelong drop in detention, too many youths are detained while their case is heard. The report looked at national data.

Last year, North Dakota approved sweeping juvenile-justice reforms.

Terry Traynor, chair of the North Dakota juvenile justice advisory group, feels there will be better outcomes with the state no longer lumping all cases in the same legal definition basket.

"We have different expectations on what's going to happen with these kids as they move through the system," Traynor explained.

The changes also call on North Dakota to use more risk and assessment tools, but Traynor believes the state should ensure there are enough community-level resources, so juveniles get the help they need to avoid future encounters with law enforcement.

He pointed out not all areas have enough mental-health and other treatment services in a least-restrictive environment.

Travis Finck, director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, agreed additional resources are key to making reforms successful. Another provision stated all youths are entitled to legal counsel without regard to parental income.

Finck said anecdotally, his team is seeing more case assignments, which actually bodes well.

"The more likely counsel is to be there, the less likely detention has to continue just because there is an attorney there who can assist that child," Finck contended.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said nationally, one out of every four juveniles sent to court are detained at the outset, with notable disparities for youth of color. He said locking kids up, even briefly, can have long-term consequences.

"For one, there's self-harm," Rovner noted. "Children are at a much higher risk of suicide having been detained. Not surprisingly, kids who are detained are much less likely to graduate from high school."

Disclosure: The Annie E Casey Foundation contributes to our fund for reporting on Children's Issues, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Education, Juvenile Justice, and Welfare Reform. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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