Building a Juvenile System to Serve the Majority of Young Offenders

Article excerpt

While high-profile incidents of youth violence have gained national headlines during the past few years and politicians have vowed to "get tough" on juvenile offenders, the majority of adolescents in juvenile justice systems throughout the country are not violent offenders. In fact, more than half -- about 70 percent -- of juvenile offenders have been incarcerated for property offenses, multiple misdemeanors or controlled substance violations, and have substance abuse problems. Clearly, with this much variation, a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice cannot work.

"Many of those incarcerated in the adult correctional system are there as a result of the failures of the juvenile system," says Jerry Adamek, who, for seven years headed Colorado's Division of Youth Corrections (DYC). "The politics of juvenile crime have resulted in many youths not receiving the intervention and resources needed to put them on the right path, so a lot of them are being thrown away."

Beginning in the early 1990s, the juvenile inmate population experienced a dramatic increase nationwide, as well as a demographic shift. In Colorado, the average daily juvenile offender population increased from 543 in 1991 to 1,198 in 1998, with the majority of them incarcerated for committing nonviolent crimes.

Realizing this trend, DYC launched a bold approach to juvenile justice, focusing its resources on the majority of the adolescents in its system: nonviolent teen-agers -- average age of 16 -- who need structure, education, training and support to succeed. DYC divides the larger group into specialized units, either by region or by need, and provides offenders with the resources that specifically address their problems. Thus, Adamek succeeded in convincing the state Legislature that investing in vocational training, education and support counseling, and a new structure for thousands of Colorado's juvenile offenders would result in overall cost savings.

"If we can get young men or women through school, provide them with good vocational training and help them find jobs with a community support network, then we don't have to pay for their room and board in prison for the next 20 years," Adamek explains. "it's a lot less expensive on the front end."

Colorado's Approach

As part of the Colorado Department of Human Services, DYC manages state-operated and privately contracted facilities, including pretrial detention and short-term shelter care programs, which serve and treat about 10,000 juveniles, ages 10 to 21, each year. DYC also provides funding and program oversight to local communities to support local initiatives specifically designed as alternatives to incarceration, which include an additional 13,000 youths. Experts estimate that Colorado's juvenile commitment and detention population comprises about 30 percent of juveniles who have committed personal felonies, such as assault or murder; 40 percent who have committed property crimes; and 30 percent who are either substance abusers or have committed multiple misdemeanors. DYC has 13 facilities: Four are exclusively for detention, four are exclusively for commitment and five are for both detention and commitment. Additionally, about 350 of the juveniles in Colorado's Youthful Offender System have been convicted of adult crimes in adult courts.

With the juvenile intake assessment system, Colorado goes beyond the standard of lumping together its nonviolent youthful offenders into one generic program. As soon as an offender enters the system, caseworkers and diagnosticians perform an assessment or triage to determine the juvenile's needs and whether there are any risk factors. Caseworkers help categorize inmates into specific demographics, which determine how the state will approach the youths to ensure they get into programs tailored to their individual needs. For example, female juvenile inmates who have children of their own face challenges that are completely different from many of the other offenders and require different resources to succeed. …