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It took four years. But the Obama administration has finally filled an important post at the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which oversees juvenile justice policy and distributes federal grants to encourage reform at the state and local levels.
The new department administrator, Robert Listenbee Jr., is a respected trial lawyer and public defender from Philadelphia who has been extensively engaged with juvenile justice policy issues at both the state and national level. If he uses the office to full advantage, Mr. Listenbee can build on recent policy advances and push more states to humanize their juvenile justice systems.
Research has increasingly shown that locking up young people has negative effects. It places them at higher risk of dropping out of school and of being unemployed, and it makes it more likely that they will become permanently entangled with the criminal justice system.
By contrast, dealing with young low-level offenders through community-based programs keeps them more closely connected to their families and to local institutions, while also cutting recidivism.
As more states have gotten this message — sometimes after being sued for mistreating children in custody — the number of young offenders held in confinement has begun to go down. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on disadvantaged children, reported this week that the number of young people locked away has recently reached a 35-year low, dropping from over 107,000 in 1995 to under 71,000 in 2010, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available. Crime has also declined, vindicating these policy changes.
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An analysis of federal data by the Justice Policy Institute, a research group, singled out five states — Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota and Tennessee — that cut their confined youth populations 50 percent or more by changing policies that steered children into locked facilities and by investing in community alternatives to incarceration.
Despite these recent improvements, the United States still leads the developed world in the number of young people it locks up. Mr. Listenbee should encourage the states to lock up fewer young people. He should also make sure that those for whom community placements may be inappropriate are kept safe and are provided the rehabilitative services they need.
Read the full article at NY Times Opinion Pages.