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Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

The Movement Toward Graduated Sanctions

The development of graduated, or accountability-based, sanctions programs is one way that States attempt to ensure that juveniles adjudicated delinquent receive an appropriate disposition by the juvenile court. Inherent in graduated sanctions programs is the notion of providing swift and appropriate punishment to youth offenders based on the gravity of their offense and an assessment of the potential risk for reoffending, coupled with appropriate treatment to reduce the risk of recidivism. According to a recent report on juvenile justice initiatives published by the NCSL, a graduated sanctions system ". . . hold[s] young people accountable for their actions every step of the way -- from the least to the most serious patterns of offending -- while maintaining public safety. It provides swift and sure punishment when a youngster first commits a crime followed by progressively tougher sanctions if he or she continues to offend."125

The factors that led to the exploration of graduated sanctions in the administration of adult criminal justice in the early 1980's have served as a catalyst for similar action in the juvenile justice system. The first factor is a significant national shift toward the "just deserts" model in criminal justice policies. The model shifts away from a more rehabilitative focus to one that stresses offender accountability through more punitive sanctions as the most appropriate way to address criminal and violent behavior. According to a study on boot camps published by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ), "the Nation entered the 1980's disillusioned by research that appeared to debunk the potential of rehabilitation . . . throughout much of the 1980's the pendulum swung the other way; public concern with safety and giving offenders their just deserts dominated sentencing policy."126

Howard Snyder, director of systems research for the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) in Pittsburgh, PA, commented in a State Legislatures article, "It is clear that there has been an attitude change toward the juvenile justice system. It's thought it cannot handle the perceived larger number of serious offenders. The pendulum has swung away from rehabilitation of the child and toward community protection."127

This focus on accountability, when combined with an overly burdened juvenile justice system and growing detention costs, lends itself to the development of alternative sanctions for juvenile offenders. "Using risk and needs assessment in conjunction with graduated sanctions combines public safety with cost efficiency," according to the NCSL report. "It increases the likelihood that serious offenders will be incarcerated while those who present a lesser danger are placed in less expensive, community-based programs."128 Typically defined as options that include a wide variety of correctional approaches, most intermediate sanctions claim multiple goals: saving money, deterring crime, protecting the public, and rehabilitating offenders.129

The model program of graduated sanctions developed by OJJDP "combines treatment and rehabilitation with reasonable, fair, human, and appropriate sanctions, and offers a continuum of care consisting of diverse programs."130 The continuum set forth includes the following components for targeted populations:

bullet Immediate sanctions within the community for first-time, nonviolent offenders.
bullet Intermediate sanctions within the community for more serious offenders.
bullet Secure care programs for the most violent offenders.
bullet Aftercare programs that provide high levels of social control and treatment services.131

Recent State Action

More and more States are looking toward developing graduated sanctions programs to treat delinquent youth effectively and to spend State dollars wisely. Policymakers are undertaking a systematic study of how these types of sentencing options exist in current correctional programming and how they could be improved upon for the future. "Although it is not unusual for States to have a variety of programs for juvenile offenders," suggests the NCSL report, "few States have a statutorily provided means for applying different levels of sanctions and treatment as part of a structured, comprehensive juvenile justice system."132

Attention to graduated sanctions programs has come as a result of juvenile justice reform initiatives in some States that have emphasized local control and autonomy in the administration of juvenile justice. For example, the 1995 Texas juvenile code reform requires the adoption of a seven-step progressive sanctions policy. Each step defines sanction options available to juvenile court judges and probation officials for different classifications of delinquent juveniles. These classifications are based on the type of offense committed; past criminal or delinquent behavior; the effectiveness of previous interventions; and an assessment of special treatment, counseling, or training needs. Local boards governing the administration of juvenile justice may deviate from the progressive sanctions guidelines established by the code when the imposition of other sanctions is deemed more appropriate.133

A similar initiative, the Virginia Juvenile Community Crime Control Act, was enacted in 1995 as a precursor to the State's 1996 juvenile code reform. The intent of the legislation was to "establish a community-based system of progressive intensive sanctions and services that corresponds to the severity of offense and treatment needs." Among other things, the law allows counties and cities to develop community-based systems that include services such as diversion programs, community service, restitution, house arrest, intensive juvenile supervision, substance abuse assessment, first-time offender programs, family counseling and treatment, day treatment, aftercare, and other residential and nonresidential programs.134

Other States are taking action to initiate graduated sanctions programs for youth. The State of Kansas created the Kansas Youth Authority in 1995 to study and make recommendations for the improved delivery of juvenile justice services in the State, including the development of alternative sanctions programs and confinement options. Likewise, an initiative in Illinois mandates that the State supreme court's Division of Probation Services must determine viable, structured intermediate sanctions for juveniles on probation or under State supervision.135 A 1996 Nebraska enactment requires the Office of Juvenile Services to establish an array of community-based services for juveniles and their families across the State, with a minimum of eight geographic sites, based upon expansion of pilot projects developed by the office.136

Inherent in this concept of providing a systematic range of appropriate sanctions and treatment is the idea that State and local criminal justice staff must approach each juvenile delinquent as an individual. According to the OJJDP comprehensive strategy, risk assessment tools "should be employed to determine the most appropriate sanction for each youth, with assessments based on the risk the offender poses to society, the nature of the offense for which the youth is committed, the number and nature of prior offenses, and the presence of other risk factors."137

States continue to amend existing assessment tools to fit the appropriateness of the population of youth offenders. Under the comprehensive juvenile justice reform enacted in Connecticut, the Office of Alternative Sanctions must develop risk assessment tools and professional evaluation teams for youth adjudicated delinquent in order to facilitate their appropriate placement in existing prevention, intervention, and sanction programs.138 Intake procedures were amended with a juvenile justice revision in Kansas in 1996. Now, juvenile intake and assessment workers are required to use a standardized risk assessment tool developed by the newly created Commission of Juvenile Justice to collect relevant information concerning the criminal and social histories of alleged youth offenders.139


125. NCSL Legislator's Guide, supra note 33 at Graduated Sanctions.

126. Roberta C. Cronin, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Boot Camps for Adult and Juvenile Offenders: Overview and Update 5 (Oct. 1994).

127. Juvenile Crime, Grown Up Time, State Legislatures (National Conference of State Legislatures, Denver, Colo.), May 1995, at 14­16.

128. NCSL Legislator's Guide, supra note 33, at Graduated Sanctions.

129. Blair B. Bourque et al., National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders: An Implementation Evaluation of Three Demonstration Programs 2 (Jan. 1996).

130. Howell Guide, supra note 32, at 133.

131. Id.

132. NCSL Legislator's Guide, supra note 33, at Graduated Sanctions.

133. Tex Fam. Code Ann. §§ 59.001­59.010 (West 1995).

134. Va. Code Ann. §§ 16.1­309.2 to ­318 (Michie Supp. 1996).

135. Lyons, supra note 111, at 7.

136. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 83­925.05 (Michie Supp. 1996).

137. Howell Guide, supra note 32, at 133.

138. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b­120 (1995).

139. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 38­1601 (Supp. 1996).


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