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    Document Summary
    - Report Published -

    Senate Document No. 14

    Document Title
    Juvenile Delinquents and Status Offenders: Court Processing and Outcomes

    Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

    Enabling Authority
    SJR 263 (Regular Session, 1995)

    Executive Summary
    In 1995, the Virginia General Assembly passed Senate Joint Resolution 263 directing the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to initiate a functional area review of the administration of justice. One particular focus of this mandate is the State's juvenile justice system. In Virginia, as in most other states, the welfare of the child is the 'paramount" focus of the juvenile code. As a guide to persons charged with the administration of the juvenile system, four basic purposes are articulated in the juvenile code to promote the welfare of the child. In summary, they are:

    (1)To divert from the Juvenile justice system, to the extent possible, consistent with the protection of public safety, those children who can be cared for or treated through alternative programs;

    (2)To provide judicial procedures through which the provisions of this law are executed and enforced and in which the parties are assured a fair hearing ...;

    (3)To separate a child from parents, legal guardians ... only when the child's welfare is endangered or it is in the interest of public safety;

    (4)To protect the community against those acts of its citizens which are harmful to others and reduce the incidence of delinquent behavior.

    This separate system for juveniles with its statutory focus on the welfare of the child is a reflection that juvenile delinquents are not miniature adults, but young immature adolescents whose criminal behavior is considered malleable because it is often rooted in family dysfunction. Accordingly, the juvenile code requires both intake officers and judges to give strong consideration to the possibility of community treatment as an alternative to the more restrictive forms of punishment, while also citing in three of the four purposes of the code that public safety must be protected.

    To ensure that this intent is implemented, the General Assembly has given intake officers the authority to divert juvenile offenders away from the formal adjudication process and into various programs of community treatment. When juvenile cases are adjudicated in court, judges can choose from a range of sanctions - formal reprimands, community service, probation, restitution, counseling, residential treatment which do not involve secure confinement.

    In recent years, several concerns have emerged regarding the juvenile justice system in Virginia. The basis for these concerns can be found in the increases in juvenile arrests (see figure on page ii), which may suggest increasing levels of juvenile crime. After a six-year decline (1978-1983), there has been a 48 percent increase in the number of juvenile arrests in the State.

    Further, since 1975, despite a decline in the number of persons in the 13 to 17 year old cohort, juvenile arrests for violent crimes have increased 36 percent. Although arrests for these types of crimes are only a small proportion of the total number of juvenile arrests, it is the recent and precipitous increase in serious crime that has simultaneously heightened public concern, brought the juvenile justice system under scrutiny, and raised questions about the intent and impact of the juvenile code.

    Until now, questions concerning the future direction of the juvenile system have proceeded without data on the performance of this system. This study provides a comprehensive examination of the system that is based on a JLARC staff review of almost 3,000 juvenile records from court service units located across the State. These records provided detailed information on the criminal history of those juveniles who came into contact with the court, as well as the particular sanctions used by the court in response to the youths' criminal behavior. In addition, the study also included an analysis of juvenile recidivism for both delinquent offenders and youths charged with status offenses acts such as truancy, which would not be a crime if committed by an adult. Significant findings of this report include the following:

    • In recognition of the juvenile code requirements pertaining to the protection of public safety, intake officers do not divert large numbers of juvenile offenders from the formal adjudication process. Specifically, almost three-quarters of all young offenders (and nearly half of all status offenders) are required to appear in court to answer charges made against them. The court referral rate for juveniles accused of a violent crime is 96 percent.

    • Once juveniles appear in court, about 76 percent are convicted. Moreover, about one-third of young offenders who appear in court and are charged with a violent offense are either confined in a State or local facility or transferred to circuit court to be tried as an adult.

    • There is little evidence to indicate that legislative intent regarding the use of community treatment has been fully embraced across the State. In FY 1992, structured programs - counseling, residential and non-residential services - were provided to less than two of every ten juveniles charged with delinquency.

    • With few available options for treatment, judges are often forced to rely on traditional juvenile sanctions such as probation, community service, or court-ordered restitution, even if the young offender has a demonstrated record of repeated failures with these sanctions.

    • Judicial decisions to impose the sanction of secure confinement do not appear to be entirely race neutral. Specifically, black youths are more likely to be placed in secure confinement even after other factors such as the seriousness of offense, prior criminal record, and level of family and individual dysfunction are taken into account.

    • Concerning the issue of recidivism, approximately 52 percent of delinquent offenders return to court following their initial contact with the system.

    • Although serious violent crimes made up less than one-sixth of all recidivist offenses, there is a substantial portion (about one-third) of delinquent recidivists who escalate the seriousness of the crimes they commit over time.

    • Over half of first-time status offenders were rearrested or returned to the court service unit within a three-year period. Further, approximately 85 percent of these non-criminal offenders who recidivated were later charged with an offense more serious than a status offense.

    • While it does appear that residential and non-residential community programs have the capacity to play a significantly larger role in the provision of community treatment services for young offenders, there are significant inequities in the amount of funds available to court service units to purchase these services. Moreover, these inequities are likely to persist under current State programs which are designed to pay for treatment services.

    Legislative Intent Appears Appropriate for Most Juveniles Addressed by the System

    The basis for having a separate juvenile justice system is that juveniles are viewed as being fundamentally different from adults. In accordance with their age, juveniles are expected to be relatively immature and impressionable individuals, less likely to accurately anticipate and understand the consequences of their actions, less likely to genuinely form criminal intent, and more likely to have the capacity to grow and change. This concept of the juvenile helps explain the provisions of the Code of Virginia that make the "welfare of the child and the family" the priority of the juvenile justice system.

    Still, there is nothing in the stated intent for the system that precludes the possibility that highly structured or tough sanctions may be required; in fact, the "welfare of the child" may clearly require that a strong message is received by the juvenile that criminal activity is not tolerated and is not to be repeated.

    Nonetheless, whether the system's emphasis on community treatment makes sense depends upon the nature of the juvenile population that appears before the system. If most of these juveniles are not as previously described, but rather are hardened, violent criminals, then the current intent of the juvenile code would be considered inappropriate.

    As cited in this report, this is not the case in Virginia. Approximately 29 of every 30 arrested juveniles are arrested for a nonviolent offense. At intake, this number is still 19 of every20 juveniles seen by the system. Furthermore, while recidivism among juveniles is a significant problem, 87 percent of all juveniles who enter the system for the commission of a non-violent offense do not recidivate to a violent felony offense. Of recidivating juveniles who first touched the system for a violent felony offense, 72 percent did not recidivate to an additional felony offense against a person within three subsequent years.

    These data do not support the view that the juvenile population is by and large a hardened, violent criminal population. Therefore, the intent of the juvenile code appears appropriate for most of the juveniles encountered by the system. This is supported by findings from a survey of juvenile court judges conducted by the Virginia Commission on Youth. Specifically, 93 percent of the judges surveyed indicated that the intent of the juvenile code should not be changed.

    Juvenile Court Judges Need Tougher Sanctioning Authority for Violent Offenders

    While the sanctions imposed in juvenile court match the circumstances of the majority of juveniles brought to the system, there is a small but increasingly violent segment of the juvenile population which the system is not presently equipped to address. For example, some violent offenses committed by juveniles show little evidence of mitigating circumstances, and the offenses committed appear to be calculated. Under current law, juvenile court judges cannot provide sentences that last beyond seven years or past the offender's twenty-first birthday. As a consequence, many young offenders who commit serious offenses such as murder are tried in circuit court and, upon a finding of guilt, are placed in adult prisons where the already remote prospect of rehabilitation is further reduced.

    A potential solution to this problem would be to link the juvenile and adult systems. Authority might be given to the juvenile courts to impose sentences that could extend past the age of 21, when the juvenile could be transferred to the adult correctional system to continue serving a longer sentence if necessary.

    Recommendation. The General Assembly may wish to consider the concept of concurrent or extended jurisdictional authority as one alternative for juvenile court sanctioning of violent offenders.

    Additional Weaknesses in the System Need to Be Addressed

    In addition to the problem of the violent juvenile offender, there are several other issues discussed in this report that need to be addressed. These issues include diversion, recidivism, and race-neutral justice.

    Diversion at Intake. Despite the emphasis in the juvenile code on the diversion of the low-risk offender, intake staff across the State do not appear inclined to handle the majority of the juvenile complaints informally, even when processing cases which involve minor acts of delinquency (see figure below). While this cautious approach to the handling of juvenile complaints does ensure that most young offenders will have to appear before a judge, it undercuts one of the cornerstones of the juvenile code - the diversion of the young, non-threatening offender away from the formal adjudication process. At the same time, it places an added weight on a juvenile system already overburdened with crowded dockets for child custody and abuse cases.

    Recommendation. In an effort to ensure more consistent implementation across court service units, the General Assembly may wish to amend 16.1-260 of the Code of Virginia to clarify its intent for the discretionary authority of intake staff in making diversion decisions.

    Recidivism. Juvenile recidivism for both delinquents and status offenders appears high and could be reduced. While there may be a number of factors driving these recidivism rates which are outside of the control of the juvenile system, the limited ability of juvenile court judges to increase the severity of sanctions for some repeat offenders is likely to contribute to this problem. When the juvenile reoffends and escalates his criminal behavior but does not face a graduated sanction, this may not convey the progressively stern message that many experts believe is necessary to reach some juveniles. This sanctioning pattern may tend to embolden an already recalcitrant juvenile and increase the likelihood of additional criminal activity.

    Under the current system, a relatively non-intensive form of probation is a heavily used and often repeated sanction. This use stems, in part, from a lack of satisfactory alternatives in a number of court service units. The use of more structured community treatment services could play a key role in a program of graduated sanctions, but more funding is needed to accomplish this. Many of the juveniles that come before the system have devastating problems - broken families, parents who harm rather than nurture their children, poor living conditions, few positive role models, psychological problems, and problems succeeding in school.

    It is not suggested that treatment will ever be a panacea for addressing this issue. But in an effort to improve the juvenile justice system and address the recidivism problem, this appears to be a component that must receive substantial attention. Accordingly, consideration should be given to expanding the role of the private sector in the provision of treatment-related sanctions for juvenile offenders who can be served in the community without serious risk to public safety. Such a strategy could also reduce the need for additional bedspace in State correctional facilities, as almost a third of the youths presently housed in these facilities appear to be good candidates for treatment in a residential setting.

    Recommendation. In part to address the issue of recidivism, the General Assembly may wish to consider enhancing juvenile court access to a broader range of sanctions, with more opportunities for treatment and the availability of more resources for stronger sanctions, including the use of more intensive probation services and structured community treatment services.

    Recommendation. The General Assembly may wish to consider the increased use of community treatment for currently confined, non-violent offenders who meet specific criteria as a part of a comprehensive approach to the capacity concerns related to the violent offender population.

    Race-neutral Justice.

    Currently in Virginia, black youth are almost 5.5 times more prevalent in the State's juvenile correctional center population as they are in the general population, and black males are more than seven times as likely to be in a secure confinement population. There are a number of factors that could potentially lead to this result, not all of which are related to juvenile court processing. For example, a high incidence of poverty and serious crime among minorities, and police arrest patterns which are often targeted on the source of urban crime, undoubtedly increase the likelihood that black youth will be brought to juvenile courts in disproportionately high numbers. Once in court, however, both the intake practices and sanctioning patterns of juvenile court judges directly impact whether black youth will be confined in large numbers relative to their percentage in the population.

    This study found that after controlling for a number of factors such as the nature of the instant offense, prior record, and family and individual dysfunction, the race of the juvenile does play a role in judicial decisions concerning the use of secure confinement. While this analysis could not address whether this bias is intentional, the finding clearly suggests that this is an issue which needs to receive attention in the system.

    Recommendation. Judges in the juvenile justice system may wish to consider a broad-based voluntary effort to define some general principles or guidelines for use in achieving the goal of race-neutral decision-making. These guidelines should consider and address some of the barriers that may exist to achieving this result, such as the issue of juvenile demeanor. The Office of the Supreme Court may wish to consider involvement in helping to initiate, coordinate, or facilitate such an effort by interested judges within the juvenile justice system.

    Automated Data System Needed to Support a Continuing Review of the System

    In a 1955 report, the Virginia Commission to Study Juvenile Delinquency cited problems in locating quantitative data on Virginia's system and its performance. Forty years later, there remains a need for the routine collection of court processing data. DYFS is currently in the process of implementing an automated intake system, but plans to track the detailed outcomes of the adjudication process, recidivism, and information on the social history of juvenile offenders have not been finalized. The availability of such data would permit an ongoing, objective assessment of juvenile court processing and whether the system is working as effectively as intended.

    Recommendation. The Department of Youth and Family Services needs to implement an effective, ongoing system for the statewide collection of meaningful data about the circumstances and offenses of juveniles brought to the system, and the intake and court processing dispositions of their cases. Provisions should be made for the periodic analysis of these data, including specific analyses to assess the outcomes of alternative dispositions, and juvenile justice system changes or reform.