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Kids Are Different

The sweet spot in criminal justice reform.

This was an encouraging week for those alarmed at the way the U.S. pumps children into the criminal justice system and what it does to them once they are there. On Capitol Hill, at the Department of Education, in a Texas courtroom and in California schools, and finally at the Supreme Court, there was a chorus of voices declaring in their own way that kids are different — and should be treated so by the nation’s prosecutors, judges, educators, and police.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the conservative Republican from Iowa who next month will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a champion of stiff mandatory sentences for adults, but Thursday he signed off on a federal measure that would update and strengthen the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act. If enacted, it would help ensure that fewer children are incarcerated for “status offenses” — behavior such as truancy that wouldn’t be a crime if an adult did it — and to restrict the practice of jailing juveniles together with (or near) adults. This latter issue, one that affects thousands of detained children, came up again this past week in Massachusetts, where state officials — after at least 15 years of noncompliance with federal law — have decided to seek federal grant money to alter the layouts of 11 courthouses where juveniles are held too close to adult prisoners.

Grassley’s support does not ensure passage of the bill, of course, but no doubt he and his colleagues in Washington will be mindful of new polling out late Thursday from the Pew Charitable Trusts that shows broad public support for juvenile justice reform in general and for the specific reforms contemplated by the new federal measure in particular. The poll also reflects wide national support for a bedrock principle behind almost every juvenile justice reform attempt: the notion that children are different from adults, both in their brain function and capacity for change and development.

That difference convinced the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, to outlaw mandatory sentences of life without parole for minors. The court said before handing down such a sentence lower courts must consider the immaturity of the subject and the role of family and home environment. But the court did not say this ruling had to be applied retroactively, and different states have chosen to revisit -- or not -- the cases of juveniles sentenced before Miller. On Friday the court agreed to head the case of George Toca, who was sentenced to life without parole at age 17 in Louisiana, one of the states that decided juveniles sentenced before Miller were out of luck. If Toca prevails, any juvenile condemned to life without parole would be eligible for a new sentencing hearing.

When children do get locked up, the departments of Education and Justice declared this week, they should get decent schooling that will give them a better chance of avoiding lifetimes dominated by incarceration. The departments issued guidelines for juvenile justice education. “We have learned that many of these kids [in jail] received deficient instruction,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing the rules. “In some troubling cases, they received no instruction at all.”

An important concession to juvenile justice advocates came in a Texas court. The Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state, questioned the way trial judges transfer juvenile offenders to adult court. It “should be regarded as the exception, not the rule,” wrote Appeals Judge Tom Price, and juvenile court judges must clearly justify their decisions to approve such transfers. At one point, judges in Harris County, which includes Houston, were approving 95 percent of the transfers requested by prosecutors.

We also learned this week of another way in which reform is coming to juvenile justice. In Oakland, Calif., an experiment in “restorative justice” in 30 schools reportedly has significantly reduced suspension rates for children of color. The San Jose Mercury News describes it best:

According to a school district report soon to be released, from 2011-2014, suspensions of African-American students for defiance decreased by 40 percent; harm was repaired in 70 percent of conflict circles; students are learning to talk instead of fight through differences at home and at school; and graduation rates and test scores are increasing while chronic absence and dropout rates are decreasing.

All of which comes too late for JaQuan Bradford. The Iowa boy, according to a federal complaint filed Tuesday, was sent to a notorious youth detention facility at age 12 for “criminal mischief” and other petty offenses and spent much of the next two years in solitary confinement. The facility, called the Iowa Juvenile Home, had a deplorable record until it was ordered closed this year at the request of Gov. Terry Branstad. Bradford, now 18, has sued the men and women who held him in confinement, claiming that he was the victim of cruel and unusual punishment.