Don't punish kids like adults for crime

High profile youth shootings have occurred in public places and the number of violent, gun-related and drug-related crimes involving youths seems to be on the rise. At forums to discuss what can be done, someone usually claims that nothing is being done and that lockup is the best solution.

As someone who has spent most of his career working with youths and their families in the juvenile justice system, I can tell you that treating delinquent youths more like adult criminals is not the answer. Certainly, delinquent youths need to be held accountable for their actions. While "adult time for adult crimes" may sound like sensible public policy, research has conclusively shown that waiving juveniles into adult court produces young people who are more likely to re-offend and to move on to more serious crimes. These youths are more likely to become the victims of violence and sexual assault. This is especially true when it comes to minority offenders.

Sentencing a young person to the adult justice system is a more costly solution at a time when Alaska has significant fiscal concerns. It will ultimately shut the door on any chance of them growing up to be productive and law-abiding members of society. Knee-jerk reactions are not what the good people of Alaska need. It's important for us to do our homework on this issue.

The perception many Alaskans have that nothing is being done is a function of poor law and policy on closing hearings and disclosing juvenile names and offenses. We need a process in keeping with "transparency in government," promoted by the Palin administration, that brings the juvenile justice system out from being a "hidden agency." We also need to ensure that victims of crime are treated with respect and dignity, as is their right under the Alaska Constitution. Victims of crime are still not considered full parties in delinquency and criminal cases, and their concerns are still too often marginalized.

Youths commit crimes for significantly different reasons from adults. Impulsiveness, poor judgment and rebelliousness are directly linked to the fact that young people's brains are undergoing major changes. When young people break the law, it usually has a specific cause: family dysfunction, substance abuse, a lack of skills and unhealthy attitudes. Accountability and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive concepts. They can be used together to make for a healthier and safer Alaska. Good rehabilitation programs already operate in Anchorage. Much is being done to keep neighborhoods safe while holding youths accountable. Anchorage Reclaiming Futures ( is an example of how a variety of professionals can work together to address delinquency issues and make Anchorage a safer place to be.

Approaches that look at the assets available in youths, families, and the community are successful and cost-effective. Positive youth development starts when the entire community makes all youths and children a priority.

William Hurr
19 May 2007

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