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North Dakota juvenile justice bill emphasizes services over punishment

North Dakota juvenile justice law hasn't changed much since 1969. One of the most significant changes proposed in HB 1035 is changing the term “unruly child” to “child in need of services,” as well as “deprived, neglected and abused” to “in need of protection.” It also would guarantee children the right to an attorney.

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West Central Regional Juvenile Center Superintendent James O'Donnell shows a classroom in the Moorhead facility. David Samson / The Forum
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BISMARCK — It’s easy to ask what penalties a child should face for a crime, said Lisa Bjergaard, North Dakota Division of Juvenile Services director.

It’s harder — but more productive — to figure out what changes a child needs to be successful, she said.

“Are you looking to do something to that kid because they’ve been bad, or are you looking to see what is driving the child?” she asked. “None of us want kids to go further with misbehavior.”

That's the aim of House Bill 1035. Dubbed the Juvenile Court Act, it would make major revisions to state law to make sure children are getting services they need so they can have a better future, preventing them from becoming “career criminals,” as bill sponsor state Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, put it.

“Many children need help, not punishment,” Klemin said Monday, Feb. 15, as the North Dakota House passed his 124-page bill with a 90-4 vote.

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North Dakota Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, speaks Monday, Feb. 15, about the Juvenile Court Act, otherwise known as House Bill 1035. It is in the Senate Judiciary Committee after passing in the House 90-4.

North Dakota juvenile justice law hasn't changed much since the state first implemented it in 1969, said Klemin, who explained that the act is the result of five years of work to revise that law to make it easier to read, as well as modernize language in Century Code.

One of the most significant changes is changing the term “unruly child” to “child in need of services,” as well as “deprived, neglected and abused” to “in need of protection.” Children in need of services will become a separate category from the juvenile justice system, which means local human services zones will handle those referrals, said Karen Kringlie, director of juvenile court for the East Central and Southeast Central Judicial Districts.

“Those cases don’t belong in the criminal system with kids who are doing robberies and burglaries,” she said.

Human service zones handle many children involved in the juvenile justice system, and they have assured leaders that they can handle the transfer of authority, Kringlie said.

Another change is for children to have the right to an attorney, with the ability for courts to be reimbursed by parents, Kringlie said. Parents may also be able to get counsel.

Currently, a child's ability to get public defense is based on the parents' income. There may be situations where parents may be the victim or don’t want to pay for an attorney, so they convince a child to plead guilty, she said.

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The House also passed a bill 90-4 to create a juvenile justice and children’s cabinet to help plan implementation of the revised act. Both bills have been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If the bills become law, the cabinet's committees would start meeting in August, and the act would go into effect Aug. 1, 2022.

Moving toward services

Last year, 2,613 North Dakota children were referred to the juvenile justice system for unruly behavior, 29% of the total juvenile referrals, according to North Dakota Court System data.

Most children officials refer to the juvenile justice system are not sent to residential facilities, Kringlie noted. Unruly children do not go to detention centers because federal law prohibits the practice, she added.

Unruly children can go to attendant care, which is short-term and usually happens before trial. Last year, eight facilities had 436 placements, and some may have been the same child more than once, Kringlie said.

Those numbers have dropped off in recent years, she said.

HB 1035 would prevent using probation violations as a reason to commit a child to a detention center, as well as limit the use of detention before trial, Kringlie said. That would further decrease detention numbers.

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About 20 years ago, U.S. officials started to realize that punitive measures don’t work on children, said Joshua Weber, deputy division director for corrections and reentry at the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Research done by his center in Texas showed institutionalized children were 20% more likely to reoffend than those kept in their communities, he said.

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  • How did we get here? Why student discipline in local public schools is the way it is How schools address behavior issues has shifted over the last 30 years due to changes in national policy, research and awareness.
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Incarceration rates for children started to decrease dramatically as states moved toward rehabilitating children, Weber noted. There has been a significant push over the last five years for helping low-risk children, especially if they commit status offenses, he added.
A status offense is an act that would only be considered a crime if committed by a minor, like running away from home or not showing up for school.

Low-level offenses can result from a child's behavioral health needs or family issues, Kringlie said.

“That’s a perfect connection to be using the zones to be assessing those cases,” she said.

By changing the terms, the philosophy of helping children also can change, Bjergaard said. The focus should be on getting children the help they need with the least amount of government intervention so they can become productive adults, she added.

"What kind of adult do we want them to be: One that we just sanctioned and punished, or one that we tried to get to the core?" she asked. "That takes some time."

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Lisa Bjergaard, director of the state Division of Juvenile Services, speaks about the juvenile justice system Wednesday, Sept. 26, during a meeting of the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

From 'default' to reform

Some states have eliminated punishment for status offenses, while others still treat those children like delinquents, Weber said.

Unlike most states, North Dakota has used the juvenile justice system as a “default” to address low-risk youth, he said in testimony for the Juvenile Court Act. HB 1035 would change that.

North Dakota is further along in implementing good policy than what is stated in Century Code, Weber told The Forum. Developing a plan to make sure children are getting the right services is critical in making sure children are getting uniform services across the state, he said.

North Dakota is aligning itself with evidence-based research with the expected passage of the Juvenile Court Act, and passing the bill could have a positive impact on recidivism, youth outcomes and help the state use limited services more efficiently.

“The bills are not just providing for statutory change, but they are providing for a mechanism for agencies to come to the table and work together to implement those changes,” he said.

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James O'Donnell is the superintendent at the West Central Regional Juvenile Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

'Take care of it at this level'

The West Central Regional Juvenile Center in Moorhead looks more like a school than a jail, with classrooms, a gym and counseling areas.

“Our youth are constantly engaged all day with teachers, therapists, court officials, just basically whatever resources they need,” Center Superintendent James O’Donnell explained.

The center serves multiple counties in west-central Minnesota and Cass County, N.D., which closed its facility in 2015.

O’Donnell said he suspected Cass County knew a revamp of how North Dakota handled the juvenile justice system was coming.

“They wanted to make sure Cass County was set,” he said, adding North Dakota does well at not detaining children for minor infractions.

Providing services is the best way to impact a child’s life, especially if they weren’t given the best chances, O’Donnell said.

“If the goal is to get productive members of society, you best take care of it at this level,” he said.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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