Don’t Shelve That Report, Mr. Attorney General

May 8, 2014

How many times have we heard from government officials, “This report will be different, it won’t just sit on a shelf,” and then the report just sat on a shelf? Too often, right?

My shelves are littered with reports created by various government task forces with recommendations that have never been implemented.  These reports serve as bookends for yet more reports that I’ve shelved.

I had hoped that this time it would actually be different.

By appointing this high-level task force, it appeared that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was making youth impacted by the justice system a priority. When the report was released on December 12, 2012, the attorney general stated that he wanted to ensure that all the recommendations in the report were implemented.

Nearly a year and a half later, there’s still no administration plan to implement the task force recommendations.

At the task force’s first hearing in Baltimore on November 29, 2011, Jabriera Handy testified about her experience in the adult criminal justice system in Maryland. Jabriera had never testified publicly in this kind of national forum and demonstrated tremendous courage in coming forward. She stated at the hearing, “Words can’t explain what I went through in the adult system … To get to school we had to walk through a tunnel that went through the adult men’s jail. One day the facility went on lockdown. We were told to turn our backs and close our eyes. But in jail you learn to never turn your back or close your eyes. That day, we saw a man get stabbed to death.”

In advocating on behalf of the 250,000 young people under age 18 who are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system and the 100,000 youth who are cycled through adult jails and prisons each year, Jabriera concluded her testimony by saying, “I urge the task force to recommend that the nation’s governors and state lawmakers end the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system to reduce recidivism and children’s exposure to violence.”

Thanks to Jabriera’s courageous testimony, along with others, the task force report encompasses the priorities of the juvenile justice community, including a solid recommendation about youth in the adult criminal justice system. The report states that, “We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.”

As with many of the report’s recommendations, there is broad consensus about this recommendation as it reflects the policies of the major professional stakeholder associations such as the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, and the National Association of Counties. And it is strongly backed by the latest research. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have undertaken or funded research that shows the ineffectiveness of juvenile transfer laws at deterring juvenile delinquency or decreasing reoffending rates.

Many state officials have moved ahead on their own in 2013 and 2014 by approving new laws on juvenile justice that include ways to reduce the prosecution of youth in adult court and remove children from adult jails and prisons. Illinois and Massachusetts passed new laws in 2013 to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to age 18. Missouri enacted “Jonathan’s Law” to give more youth an opportunity at rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system instead of the adult criminal justice system. Also in 2013, Nevada and Indiana enacted new laws to keep kids out of adult jails and prisons.

Recently, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland signed a bill that would give youth more opportunities at rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system, rather than the adult criminal justice system. Jabriera Handy and her colleagues at the Just Kids Maryland campaign, a project of Community Law in Action (CLIA), worked hard to get this new law passed.

With so much support, it should be different this time. The AG’s task force report recommendations must be swiftly enacted throughout the country with the full weight of the Attorney General and backed by Justice Department resources and technical assistance.

Don’t let this report sit on the shelf Mr. Attorney General. Make good on your commitment and get moving on implementation.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. To stay in touch with Liz, follow her on twitter @LizRyanYJ. This post first appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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