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Editorial: Patchwork rehabilitation policies for Iowa’s juveniles

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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Even with Des Moines nearing the top of the chart for places to raise a family — No. 6, according to Forbes — children can’t seem to catch a break in Iowa … at least not consistently.  While Gov. Terry Branstad and other politicians argue about whether to welcome displaced, unaccompanied minors in Iowa — and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas informs Iowans in Clear Lake about readying 1,000 National Guard troops to help secure the border against anything on two legs that tries to walk out of Mexico — Iowa has recently dealt with its own issues regarding the young and the youthful. 

The Iowa Supreme Court’s finding mandatory sentences for juveniles unconstitutional and the closing, rather than fixing, the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo create a mixed and confusing message about how Iowa views minors. The Editorial Board encourages state officials to act in the interest of children, if only to function acceptably humanely.

According to the Des Moines Register, the closing of the facility in Toledo has caused a scattering of girls who have committed crimes to a number of different, smaller facilities across the state. As critics note, this might make it difficult to provide appropriate rehabilitative care to the youth, and — at the time the piece was published — 33 girls would have qualified to be housed in such a complete, unified facility with appropriate services. The Iowa Juvenile Home closed earlier this year after the Register unearthed depressing information about the treatment of the facility’s inmates.

Closer to the other side of the spectrum, much more recently, lies the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling allowing minors to be tried more fairly like children. Though the decision was a close split, 4-3, an Associated Press report describes the decision as the first of its kind. Minimum sentences for minors are, for the time being, a thing of the past.

What we’ve seen in a very short time is a conflicting sense of how to handle and treat children and teenagers. The closing in Toledo was fast and dramatic. Rather than fixing the issue in the best manner possible, the state threw the facility by the wayside and dusted its hands off. While representatives from the Department of Human Services are still figuring out what to do as far as educating and rehabilitating the dispersed girls, the juvenile home sits unoccupied, an eerie, Chernobyl-esque monument to mistakes of the past. 

But the state — at least the Supreme Court — seems mildly eager to treat children fairly. Second chances are difficult to come by unless you’ve got connections, especially in the U.S. legal system, one of the least forgiving in the developed world.

If the goal of juvenile detention centers and prisons is to rehabilitate those who have wronged society to a psychological level at which they won’t commit further crime, appropriate facilities are required. This is especially true with young adults who require an education and — often — thorough psychological care.

The state’s judicial system, it seems, wants to handle young inmates with the assumed goal that they’ll improve — rather than keep them in jail for years after entering adulthood — but the state lacks the facilities to appropriately reach that point.

The Supreme Court’s decision was a mild step forward, but the closing in Toledo, without the decision to fix staff and procedural issues, and subsequent scattering of its juveniles across — and even out of — the state has been a huge step backwards that the decision alone cannot impede.


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