Staff Columnist

Quad Cities' juvenile justice plan needs statewide scrutiny

The Mississippi River flows under the Government Bridge, which features double tracks of rail above the road level, and a dam at Locks and Dam No. 15 while the Centennial Bridge stands in the background as seen in an aerial photograph in Davenport on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Mississippi River flows under the Government Bridge, which features double tracks of rail above the road level, and a dam at Locks and Dam No. 15 while the Centennial Bridge stands in the background as seen in an aerial photograph in Davenport on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Leaders in Davenport are embarking on a new juvenile justice path, the first of its kind in Iowa. We should all sit up and pay attention.

Discussions in Davenport about juvenile delinquency reached a sad crescendo last summer, following the still unsolved shooting death May 19 of 16-year-old Jovontia “Jovi” Jones. Adding to local tensions was a significant increase in automobile thefts, many by teenagers, and news the Scott County Juvenile Detention Center was consistently operating over capacity.

Mayor Frank Klipsch brought together clergy members, school officials, juvenile court personnel, police officers, social service providers, city officials and community members during a June “Youth Community Action Summit” as well as through a series of listening sessions. And, just before Christmas, Klipsch publicly announced his findings alongside a series of action steps.

Key among the recommendations — which include better data sharing between law enforcement agencies, and upgrading a phone app that connects people with social services — is the creation of a brick-and-mortar Juvenile Assessment Center, a first for the Hawkeye State.

This wasn’t a new idea in Davenport, or in other parts of the nation. Juvenile Assessment Centers, or JACs, operate in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Louisiana and other states. A May report in the Quad-City Times noted creation of an assessment center in Scott County “has been a goal of the Davenport City Council.” In fact, before Jones’ untimely death, city leaders already had traveled to Colorado to learn more about the program, and had briefed city and county leaders about what they learned.

Development of the state’s first JAC is a legislative priority for Davenport leaders, and one that probably would be a good fit within the developing framework of a statewide children’s mental health system. That means, of course, that while local leaders want the state to help fund their facility, it sets up the possibility of a pilot program that could eventually be duplicated in other counties.

The purpose of the JAC, according to Davenport leaders, would be two-pronged: assessment/treatment and criminal justice.

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Instead of local youth picked up by law enforcement immediately moving into the juvenile justice system, they would come to the center for assessment. This handoff of juvenile offenders would immediately free law enforcement to return to patrol — reclaimed downtime that Miami says has saved Florida taxpayers more than $32 million each year.

In other states, parents or guardians are immediately contacted, and an assessment of the juvenile and his or her family begins. Immediately after the assessment, referrals are made. These might be to social service organizations, or to a juvenile detention center.

The thought behind JACs is to keep as many juveniles as possible out of the justice system, and divert them and their families instead into programs to diagnose and address underlying causes of delinquent behavior.

This is a noble and laudable goal because history shows locking up wayward youth in impersonal and institutional correction facilities does not lead to rehabilitation. In fact, such facilities too often become a training ground for additional anti-social behavior. But any JAC instituted in Iowa must acknowledge that treatment and punishment are not always compatible goals.

Potential problems and pitfalls were outlined in an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention evaluation of assessment centers. Among key cautions were due-process concerns, possibilities of “net widening” and increased disproportionate minority contact. These are concerns that must be fully vetted by Scott County leaders, before construction begins on the facility.

Juveniles brought into an assessment center, if there is any possibility of prosecution following assessment, have a right to a defense lawyer. No matter how physically removed from the criminal justice system the facility is, due process must be respected.

That includes decisions about whether or not the facility is a detention facility, regardless of length of stay. If juveniles brought in by law enforcement cannot leave, it is a detention facility. Are treatment services mandatory? What happens if a family won’t or can’t comply?

The federal evaluation notes some juveniles, who would otherwise be treated differently, are brought to assessment centers and then become “entwined” with juvenile justice “under the guise of getting help.” In these instances, a system designed to divert juveniles from the criminal justice system has the opposite effect by “net widening,” or bringing more juveniles into the system.

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Finally, there was no evidence that assessment centers have reduced disproportionate contact. The federal evaluation expressed concerns that these centers could make it worse through net widening. Because 90 percent of juveniles arrested in Davenport for auto theft were black, discussions and research on disproportionate contact must be a priority.

Davenport leaders repeatedly have expressed a need to hold juvenile offenders accountable. I don’t disagree, but I’m convinced it is equally important to hold our justice systems accountable.

Working with private-sector companies — a specific interest expressed by Davenport leaders — must not hinder public scrutiny.

This conversation may have begun in the Quad Cities but, given what’s at stake, it can’t remain there. Many more stakeholders from many more communities need to take a seat at the table, and plan a fair course forward for all of our kids.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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