Right on Crime signatory Newt Gingrich takes to the South Dakota press to promote reform for that state’s juvenile corrections system. His piece appeared in the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, and comes on the heels of Senate Bill 73, bipartisan state legislation that would, in the words of Governor Dennis Daugaard, lead to “fewer youth incarcerated, with a greater emphasis on community support and accountability for the offender.”
Speaker Gingrich writes:
Think of a teenager that you love very much. It could be your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. Basically a good kid, but like most teenagers, having a tough time adjusting to the physical and emotional changes they are experiencing. He or she makes a bad decision — skips school, runs away from home, violates curfew or sneaks some alcohol.
How should the government handle these violations? Certainly there should be consequences. Young people have to learn that they need to follow the rules. But how should we teach them to follow the rules? Should we ship them away from their families to teach them a lesson, or should we try to treat them in their homes, in their communities, and teach them to become better citizens where they live?
In South Dakota, shipping youth far away from home has become the norm, even for those who commit the most minor infractions. In fact, nearly 75 percent of youth placed in South Dakota’s juvenile corrections facilities have committed a misdemeanor, probation violation, or “status offense” (meaning they did something that for adults wouldn’t be a crime). Even those with little or no prior contact with the courts often end up placed in remote facilities — an extreme response.
It’s no wonder South Dakota has the second-highest juvenile commitment rate in the country.
I came to learn about these troubling facts recently through a report released by the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Initiative Work Group. Formed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, legislative leaders and Chief Justice Gilbertson, the group’s goal was to examine the state of the juvenile justice system and suggest needed reforms to better hold youth offenders accountable, improve public safety by improving outcomes for youth that come into the system and save money.
Because teenage years are rife with big changes, it’s important that juvenile justice policies help young people learn how to cope with their frustrations, not just be punished for them. If a teen has done something wrong, he or she should be held accountable. But removing children from their families should be the last resort. In such cases, government intervention often makes the situation worse.
Unless there is abuse, the family home is far and away the best place for a teen. The family has the greatest interest in the child. Systems can’t love children. Only people can.
When we send children to correctional facilities, moreover, South Dakota taxpayers are on the hook for up to $144,000 per year, per youth. This high cost might be worth it if the teens left the facilities better than they entered. But more than four in every 10 juveniles released from the Department of Corrections return within three years. Removing these low-level, nonviolent youth from their homes doesn’t work. The high price tag adds costly insult to injury.
Committing youth to facilities creates a domino effect. Sometimes, the skills teens learn in order to survive inside a juvenile facility are more likely to lead them into a life of crime — the very thing we want to prevent. Instead, we should be ensuring these youth become part of South Dakota’s future and South Dakota’s workforce.
South Dakota’s state legislators are moving swiftly on juvenile justice reform. On Wednesday, the state senate unanimously voted to pass SB73, the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, to the state House, where it will be heard in committee. SB73 contains a comprehensive package of reforms that will increase public safety while ensuring South Dakota’s taxpayer dollars are used as efficiently as possible. These reforms include limiting expensive residential placements to youth who pose a public safety risk, expanding diversion for youth committing lower level offenses, and broadening access in local communities to programs that research has proven to be effective at getting youth back on the right track.
If these reforms are fully implemented, estimates suggest that number of juveniles in correctional facilities will be cut by more than 50 percent and the number of people on probation will drop by more than 25 percent by 2020.
I trust that lawmakers will agree that juvenile corrections can and must achieve the best public safety results with taxpayers’ hard-earned money and adopt the reforms that will make a system that gives troubled youth a chance to redeem themselves and give back to society.
Newt Gingrich is a Right on Crime signatory, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a CNN contributor.