Saturday, August 07, 2004

Juvenile Justice

Today, Colbert King suggests that had the police been more diligent about picking up a 20-year-old for having fled from a juvenile group home more than two years earlier (that is, when he was 17 and still a juvenile), he might not have committed a recent murder. King also assumes that any offender (including a juvenile) with a lengthy criminal record should be held in a highly secure institution, not a group home. King misses, oh, a few important factors....

First, when a juvenile offender absconds shortly before his maximum release date (which is often the offender's 18th birthday), there may be little that can be done to the offender if he is recaptured. This can make the recapture of such an offender a low priority - if, for example, all the state would do is hold a hearing to discharge the offender and close the juvenile file, the police and courts generally have better things to do with their time.

Second, picking up abscondees is typically low priority work, even when adult offenders are involved. Manhunts are usually reserved for those believed to pose imminent danger; most offenders who fail to appear in court or take off from a half-way house or group home do not merit that type of law enforcement effort and expense, and they are picked up when stopped for a traffic violation or in association with a different offense or investigation.

Third, group homes do not automatically result in huge escape rates, as King suggests. Even without his disclosing how many thousands of offenders are in the system, King's own figures, that there are presently only 56 youths who have absconded from District of Columbia group homes, suggests that this is not a huge problem.

Fourth, group homes are not necessarily inappropriate environments for kids with lengthy records. In fact, for some, a group home and structured environment can be a positive step toward rehabilitation. For others who may have been in a more secure institution, they provide a necessary and beneficial step in the transition from a secure facility to freedom. It is easy to whinge about how group homes and transitional facilities are not sufficiently tough on crime, but it is inappropriate to do so without looking into the contributions of those programs toward rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism. The "lock 'em up" approach sounds good, particularly when looking at an individual case with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but you have to try to remember the big picture.

The focus of King's editorial also brings to mind the following: However the state may have failed, it was not the state which pulled the trigger in this case. Even assuming that had the District picked up the killer shortly after he absconded, and even assuming that it had the authority to detain him past his eighteenth birthday, he would most likely have been released within the past two years, and quite likely that he would have made the same bad choices. It wasn't his placement in a group home at the age of seventeen, or his low priority status as an abscondee from the group home, which made him pull the trigger and kill a fifteen-year-old girl.

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