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Advocates Push for Juvenile Justice Reform as States, SCOTUS Weigh In

Advocacy groups have pushed hard in recent months to change the way the criminal justice system treats juveniles. The most recent efforts have focused on ensuring minors are excluded from being prosecuted as if they were adults.

To that end, the Sentencing Project has been working toward facilitating a number of changes to the way juveniles are treated in court, and recently made a push in several states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old.

“Youth justice has been a critical component of The Sentencing Project’s mission for years but in 2021 we are greatly expanding our capacity to address racial disparities and protect children from the most extreme elements of the adult criminal legal system,” according to the advocacy group. “The Sentencing Project is prioritizing advocacy in states that still send 200 or more children automatically to adult court. We are fighting to ensure that the final three states with court jurisdictions below 18 raise the age, and address the gross racial and ethnic injustice that persists in our treatment of children as if they were adults.”

Notably, just a few weeks ago, a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling rejected certain limitations to the way juvenile offenders are sentenced, specifically with respect to those facing life in prison with no parole. To that end, Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned the majority opinion that found sentencing judges will not need to make a separate determination that a juvenile offender cannot be rehabilitated before levying such a penalty.

According to The Sentencing Project, the three states it is focusing its efforts on are Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin. As such, they have actively pushed back against policies aimed at treating juveniles like adults by recruiting experts, drawing up briefs, building coalitions and assisting in campaign strategies with relevant stakeholders.

From Twitter:

Pace Center for Girls @PaceCenter May 3

Image for May 7 PLP"Thank you Senator @jenn_bradley and Representative @RalphMassullo for your leadership on HB 723. The passage of this bill will ensure that young people in juvenile justice education programs receive the tools they need to put them on a path towards success. #GreatInEveryGirl"

With respect to progress in this area, the Sentencing Project specifically pointed to Georgia’s HB 272, which passed the state’s House but was rejected in the Senate as law enforcement raised objections. Similarly, a bill under consideration in Texas, HB 967, has had several hearings, and finally, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has included raising the age of criminal responsibility in his annual budget.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also taken issue with the way juveniles are treated both in schools and in criminal proceedings, and has sounded the alarm with respect to how those policies impact minorities.

According to the ACLU, more than 150,000 Black and Brown youths are restrained, referred to a law enforcement agency or arrested in U.S. schools each year. They argue this reality has a lasting impact on the students, and as such, has openly called on President Joe Biden to stop funding a police presence in schools. “Placing police in our schools perpetuates a chilling pattern of racial and disability discrimination that endangers and traumatizes our children and funnels them into the school to prison pipeline,” according to the ACLU. “School policing is a threat to our students’ civil rights and to their right to learn in safe and supportive school environments.”

Earlier this year, the group sent a letter to the president seeking federal action that included the signatures of more than 150 individuals and organizations including the National Urban League, the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the National Disability Rights Network.

“There are currently 14 million students in schools with police and no nurses, social workers, or psychologists. Instead of pouring money into law enforcement, President Biden must redirect the additional $300 million designated for community policing—which often goes into placing police in schools—and invest it in our communities,” they added.

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