Bar News - September 7, 2007
Judge Lawrence: Federal Funding Needed for Community-based Treatment of Youth Offenders
By: Laura Kiernan, Judicial Branch Communications Director
Goffstown District Court Judge Paul H. Lawrence, co-chair of New Hampshire’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and a member of the state Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice, testified before members of Congress this summer in support of treatment programs for youth offenders that focus on strong family and community ties and hold youth accountable for “making amends” instead of incarcerating them.
Appearing at a joint House sub-committee hearing on reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, Lawrence said the law would be improved if more funds were directed “to programs that prevent repeated system involvement and show excellent results in restoring young people to home and community life…” In particular, Lawrence referred to detention reform initiatives, graduated sanctions programs, and “restorative justice” programs which include involvement of victims, offenders and their communities.
Studies on restorative justice programs in the United States and other countries “cite significant benefits to both offenders in terms of reducing recidivism and to victims and survivors in terms of enhancing their sense of well-being and healing,” Lawrence testified.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is the major source of federal funding to the states for juvenile justice programs. In 2007, New Hampshire received $1 million in funds to implement key provisions of the Act. Lawrence said he is hopeful that New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation will work to restore New Hampshire’s funding to the 2001 level of $2.7 million.
Funding from the Act has been used to establish alternatives to detention, such as emergency beds in group homes available to youthful offenders from Rockingham, Hillsborough, Grafton, Strafford and Coos Counties.
Considered a landmark in the nation’s approach toward treatment of juvenile offenders and crime prevention when it was passed by Congress in 1974, the Act was intended to “deinstitutionalize” juvenile offenders and keep non-violent youth and “status offenders,” such as truants and runaways, out of jail.
The Act was also meant to assure that juvenile offenders were not housed with adult prisoners, which studies show fosters more bad behavior, and to address disproportionate incarceration of juveniles who are of racial or ethnic minorities.
In his testimony last week, Lawrence urged Congress to consider prohibiting use of federal funds “for ineffective and damaging approaches” toward treatment of juvenile offenders such as ‘boot camps,’ scared-straight programs, excessive use of physical restraint, force and punishment and the building of large residential institutions.”
These “highly punitive models” have been shown to “increase rather than decrease re-arrest and re-offense,” Lawrence said. His testimony was heard on July 12 at a joint hearing hosted by subcommittees of both the House Education and Labor Committee and the Judiciary Committee. A full text of his remarks is available at www.courts.state.nh.us/press.
Lawrence said that the State Advisory Groups, which were established to advise Congress on implementation of the Act, would recommend that the Act’s funds be used for “programs and practices that emphasize due process, positive youth development and adolescent brain development research and restoration of an offender’s relationship to society.”
“Every time a judge shepherds a young person through the juvenile justice system, he or she must be certain that all steps have been taken to enhance the youth’s competencies before imposition of predominantly retributive measures,” Lawrence said in his testimony.
“In fact, if judges—as well as congressional and federal decision makers—are to do what is best for children and youth involved in the courts, we would make a primary commitment in juvenile justice much like the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm,” Lawrence said. That concept, Lawrence said, was the basis for passage of the Act more than 30 years ago, launching a nationwide program for offender rehabilitation and juvenile justice system improvements.
In considering reauthorization, Lawrence said Congress should consider the Act’s core principles: keep children and youth out of the court system and out of institutional settings; insure any court involvement is limited; and use age-appropriate sanctions based on what is known about adolescent development, brain science and principles of positive youth development.
Lawrence is a past chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national leadership association of advisory groups which implement the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act at the state level. He is also a member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Editor’s Note: On a related topic, the upcoming issue of the Bar Journal includes an article by David Sandberg, senior staff attorney of CASA-NH looking at the evolution of the juvenile justice system, 40 years after the Gault decision enumerated specific due-process rights for juveniles. Sandberg argues that the decision resulted in juvenile courts losing focus on the restorative approaches that distinguished them from adult courts, but that recent innovations are returning the courts to their original purpose.