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North Dakota juvenile delinquent population grows

FARGO, N.D.--Across the country, many states are trying to slash the number of juvenile delinquents ordered to live in correctional centers, group homes and other facilities. Supporting this push, experts say, is clear evidence that shows most de...

FARGO, N.D.-Across the country, many states are trying to slash the number of juvenile delinquents ordered to live in correctional centers, group homes and other facilities. Supporting this push, experts say, is clear evidence that shows most delinquents fare better when they can stay with their families and in their schools.

In line with this mindset, 49 states experienced a drop in the per-capita rate of delinquents required to live at such facilities, with more than half of states seeing a decline of over 50 percent from 2001 to 2013, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national nonprofit group.

The only state bucking this trend was North Dakota. It saw an 18 percent rise during this period-a time when juvenile arrest rates fell in North Dakota and around the nation.

North Dakota officials said they're not convinced that Pew's analysis, which uses data from a federal survey, is an accurate representation of the state's juvenile justice system. But they couldn't point to specific flaws in the data, which shows that North Dakota's rate of youth per 100,000 who were ordered to live in juvenile facilities climbed from 196 in 2001 to 231 in 2013. North Dakota's rate in 2013 was the fourth highest in the U.S. after South Dakota (302), Wyoming (264) and Oregon (245).

Assistant state court administrator Scott Johnson said North Dakota's judges and judicial referees balance public safety with the goal of doing what's best for youth. That includes keeping delinquent kids, whenever possible, out of secure facilities like the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan and non-secure sites like group homes, Johnson said.

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"Anytime you can serve kids closer to their home environment, that's the best that we can all do," said Lisa Bjergaard, director of the Juvenile Services Division at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Despite having concerns about the federal data, Bjergaard concedes that North Dakota's rate of delinquents held at juvenile facilities hasn't declined over the years, while other states like Montana and Minnesota have seen drastic drops in step with the national average.

Bjergaard said a factor possibly contributing to North Dakota's steady rate is the fact that rural communities often lack mental health and substance abuse programs, so delinquents who need these services are sent to live at facilities where they can receive them. In many cases, these kids are nonviolent, she said.

Some say this approach, which separates kids from their families and schools, is misguided.

"The idea of locking a young person up in a facility far away from his home couldn't be a worse way of trying to address a young person's needs," said Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Balis said living with other delinquents can lead a troubled youth further astray and that confining a youth to a facility should be a final resort, used only when there's a threat to public safety. Rather than spending money on residential facilities, he said, funds should be put toward more community-based services.

Bjergaard said she'd like to have more services in rural areas, but funding alone isn't the solution. There's also the hurdle of finding qualified staff, such as juvenile probation officers, addiction counselors and mental health professionals, in a state with a workforce shortage, she said.

'We can help'

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Like North Dakota, Montana faces challenges in serving delinquent youth in remote places. But unlike North Dakota, Montana has managed to cut its rate of delinquents ordered to live in juvenile facilities by more than half from 2001 to 2013, according to federal data.

Cindy McKenzie, administrator of the Youth Services Division at the Montana Department of Corrections, credits this decline to the state's consistent funding of early-intervention efforts, like afterschool programs, tutoring programs and youth clubs, that target struggling kids before they're ever ordered to stay in a facility.

"If they're just coming into probation, and they're having problems with school, we can help with that. We can help with counseling, and we can do family therapy. We can do a lot of that through this funding," McKenzie said.

Bjergaard said there's money for such programs in North Dakota, but it flows through departments other than the Juvenile Services Division. She said much of her division's early-intervention budget is spent on intensive in-home therapy meant to divert kids out of juvenile court and on alternative classrooms for kids at risk of losing their ties to school.

'A hard look'

Robin Olsen, a juvenile justice specialist for Pew, said research shows that lengthy out-of-home placements can increase the chances of recidivism for some youth. She said there's also evidence that the alternatives to making kids live in facilities can be cheaper and more effective.

"I think states are really taking a hard look at that and seeing how they can align their systems to that research," she said.

State Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said these sorts of issues are ones that North Dakota's Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration will examine.

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So far, the commission, which Carlisle heads, has largely focused on trying to reduce the number of incarcerated adults. Among the raft of bills the commission recommended during this year's legislative session, only one of them dealt with juveniles. That was a bill, passed into law, that eliminated the mandatory transfer of juveniles to adult court in cases that involve making, delivering or possessing drugs.

Carlisle, who said he supports keeping delinquents in their homes and schools, doesn't know what type of juvenile justice legislation the commission might suggest for the next session, but he's optimistic legislators will be receptive to change.

"People more are starting to understand the problem," he said. "The mindset is way more open, including me."

Kids counted

Bjergaard acknowledges that the state's juvenile justice system has room for improvement. But after spending time reviewing the federal data Pew used in its analysis, she's puzzled by it.

"My numbers don't match what they have, and I don't know how that is," she said.

Bjergaard said her numbers show that the rate of juveniles per 100,000 who were required to live in facilities went from 301 in 2001 to 194 in 2013, a decrease of 35 percent.

This discrepancy may partly be a result of the federal survey counting kids based on the state where they committed their offenses. "There are some North Dakota kids in facilities in other states, and so we count them as North Dakota kids," said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, which conducted the survey for federal officials.

Bjergaard said she believes the federal survey counted kids in the child welfare system who were living in the same facilities as juveniles in the corrections system.

Sickmund said it's not uncommon for these two populations to be housed together in certain facilities around the country. And it may be true that kids in the child welfare system who committed offenses were included in the survey data, but kids who were simply abused or neglected were not counted, she said.

Rate of juveniles per 100,000 ordered to live in correctional centers, group homes and other facilities

North Dakota

1997 ... 199

1999 ... 230

2001 ... 196

2003 ... 308

2006 ... 320

2007 ... 274

2010 ... 230

2011 ... 217

2013 ... 231

2001 2013

North Dakota 196 231

Montana 178 84

Minnesota 256 119

South Dakota 414 302

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

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