Juvenile Justice

A new interstate agreement on handling juvenile offenders as they cross jurisdictions is moving slowly toward enactment.

The new Interstate Compact for Juveniles, when adopted by 35 states, would replace the current compact, written in 1955. Both compacts govern how states manage juvenile offenders as they move among states, return runaways to their home states and return juveniles to the states where they were charged with delinquent acts.

Juvenile justice officials say the 1955 compact, which is still in effect, is outdated, confusing and ineffective. It was written and adopted before the interstate highway system was completed, when air transportation was costly and less accessible, and before the age of computers. Although it has been amended three times, not all member states have ratified all the changes, which makes compliance difficult.

“You have a compact that differs” among the parties, “which goes against the idea of having a compact,” said Chad Foster, a policy analyst with the Council of State Governments (CSG).

Juveniles and their offenses – as well as the consequences – have also changed, Foster said. Juveniles are more likely to require drug and alcohol rehabilitation today than they were five decades ago. Divorces and joint custody are more common, and families tend to move more often.

The Association of Juvenile Compact Administrators, which oversees implementation of the compact, estimated that in 1999 about 15,000 juvenile offenders were being supervised outside the states where they were adjudicated, with at least another 5,000 offenders unsupervised.

Since uncovering numerous problems with the compact in a 1999 survey of participating states, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has awarded the CSG $450,000 in grants to help review and revise the compact and the program.

Membership in the compact is voluntary, but compliance by members is not.

One of the key changes under the new compact is the establishment of an Interstate Commission for Juveniles, which will have a voting commissioner from every participating state. The commission will be able to enforce the compact, in part by suing member states in federal court for noncompliance.

“Just having that authority in place is a huge incentive for many states to comply,” Foster said.

The commission will also be able to levy fines, suspend or terminate a state’s membership in the compact and enter into dispute resolution with member states that fail to comply with the compact.

Some members of the advisory group that drafted the compact language believe the commission will not have to use its authority often.

“The hope is you can kind of shame them into doing the right thing,” said Connecticut State Rep. Mike Lawlor (D-East Haven), one of 23 members of the compact advisory group. Lawlor said he expects his state’s General Assembly to approve legislation to join the compact this year.

The commission would replace the Association of Juvenile Compact Administrators, which does not have any vested authority.

“The enforcement has to go beyond ‘you’re violating the rules,’” said Ray Wahl, an advisory panel member and the juvenile court administrator for Utah. “The time has come to put some accountability into this compact system. We’re talking about a public safety issue, an issue that deals with kids.”

Confusion

The proposed commission’s rule-making power is one of its strongest selling points, particularly for states that may be wary of ceding autonomy to a compact.

“I don’t view it as giving up state rights or state autonomy,” said advisory panel member Mike Buenger, the Missouri state court administrator. States can join the compact, abide by its rules and amend the compact as necessary. States that do not join risk being constrained by new federal rules that are not likely to be amended as easily.

States that violate the current compact do so for many reasons, and “a lot of time people don’t comply with the rules because they aren’t aware of them,” said Wahl, former director of probation and parole for Utah.

Some states told the OJJDP that they lack the resources to pick up and return juvenile offenders at the request of the youths’ home states, or to notify officials quickly when an offender moves to a new state and needs supervision.

“In many cases, youth had been in the receiving states for several months before officials in the receiving state were notified,” the OJJDP survey said. In some cases, state officials are not aware of the offenders’ presence until they commit crimes (including murder) in the states they’ve moved to.

“There’s been a series of incidents like that,” Foster said.

The new compact also attempts to clarify some matters that confuse state officials. For example, some states differ on the upper age limit for a juvenile. “You might be a juvenile in one state but not in another,” Lawlor said. In Connecticut, the juvenile justice system has jurisdiction only over offenders under the age of 16.

Under the proposed compact, a juvenile is defined as anyone considered a juvenile in his or her home state.

The compact also will establish a better tracking and data system through uniform, computerized reporting, Foster said.

The advisory group estimates that it would cost about $1 million to establish the interstate commission. States would pay annual dues ranging from $12,000 to $37,000, based on their population. Current compact dues are $400 a year.

As of mid-April, three states had adopted the new compact – Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota – and Foster expected three more to do so at any time. Advisory panel members were pleased with the progress, given the pace at which state legislatures act and considering the final compact draft was released last June.

The advisory committee hopes the compact will begin to operate in three years. It cannot take effect before July 2004.

Contact: Council of State Governments, (859) 244-8000, http://www.csg.org/CSG/Programs/interstate%2Bcompacts/default.htm.

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