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Prosecuting attorneys work every day in the juvenile justice system, giving them a unique understanding of the challenges that exist when children come into contact with the courts. As a result, they have an important role to play when reforms are underway. In Hawaii, Kentucky, and South Dakota, for example, prosecuting attorneys proved key to deliberations about juvenile justice reforms.
Each of these states implemented broad changes to their juvenile justice systems in recent years with technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts. In a new brief, elected prosecuting attorneys in these states discussed their experiences in helping implement data-driven reform in their respective states. They shared the importance of participating in collaborative efforts to achieve better outcomes.
"Prosecutors in Kentucky rarely get involved in policy, because we have a healthy deference to the legislature and its role," said Prosecuting Attorney Steve Gold. "But this process had the potential to institutionalize changes that could make our community safer, so we definitely wanted to be involved in that."
When prosecutors were asked to identify the problems in their systems that led to the need for reform, they raised an array of concerns. Due to South Dakota's rural nature, for example, treatment options can be limited in some communities and children are routinely placed in the Department of Corrections to obtain services," said Mark Vargo of South Dakota. In Kentucky, meanwhile, the state was also relying heavily upon incarceration prior to their reform efforts. This was especially true when it came to status offenses, said Steve Gold. In Hawaii, meanwhile, "judges also had few options, so they relied heavily on incarceration, even if that wasn't the best option for certain kids," said Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth.
Prosecutors had an important role to play in correcting these problems. Gold, for example, said that prosecutors in Kentucky helped implement early interventions. By using risk and needs assessment tools at the first point of system contact, and connecting children with services early in the process, they have decreased court referrals over the past three years by nearly 70 percent. He explained, "Before this reform, we often had to go on gut feelings as we tried to figure out what sort of interventions each youth needed, and we got a lot of kids in court who shouldn't have been there at all."
South Dakota and Hawaii's reforms also placed an emphasis on getting services to children in their homes and communities. Both have tried to develop more tools so that children can get the help they need without being incarcerated or taken from their community.
"We may disagree about how you get there, but if your only solution is to lock kids up, then what do you do when that doesn't work?" said Roth.
To learn more about the Pew Charitable Trusts and their work related to juvenile justice reform, please visit their website.