Editorial: Stopping juvenile detention


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When looking at the cycle of perpetual imprisonment that has plagued our justice system, one aspect that cannot be ignored is the juvenile offender. Perpetrators of crime under the age of 18 and their role in the incarceration culture is often overlooked in the face of the more publicized issues of the adult prison system.

At such a pivotal point in their development, it is not surprising to see that youth incarceration can be a huge factor in potential unemployment and future imprisonment. Upon their release, we are then left with a population of young adults acclimated to an environment in which they are stripped of their freedom and branded a threat to society.

This is something Johnson County is familiar with. In 2013, the Iowa City City Council tackled the issue as part of its effort to address disproportionate minority contact with the criminal-justice system. In a report, the overall rates of juvenile detention were said to be going down. However, the average detention rate per 100 referrals for African Americans was 19.1, while the average for whites was 11.6.

Youth crime has dropped dramatically in recent years, with the CDC stating that juvenile arrest rate in 2011 was 32 percent lower than it was in 1980. However, there are still many initiatives around the country that have been launched to further combat juvenile crime and detention in an effort to nip the problem in the bud. A notable example of this is the emerging program called Liggitt’s LADDERS, which aims to halt the transformation of youth offenders into adult offenders, and focuses on the ethnic disparities in the juvenile-justice system.

Liggit’s LADDERS, which is being championed by Johnson County social worker Latasha DeLoach, is designed to provide an alternative to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders charged with disorderly conduct on Iowa City School District grounds. A student will have the option to participate in a multistep program which upon completion will result in the removal of the charge.

“I always tell people that 82 percent of kids who are first-time offenders never get out of the system,” DeLoach said. “If we catch first-timers, we have a better chance of kids not getting caught in the system.”

Those kinds of numbers paint a grim picture for kids who lack the sort of institutional structure that school provides and instead wind up in a correctional institution.  Measures such as Liggit’s LADDERS are a step in the right direction for reforming the juvenile-justice system. 

Yet one program can’t solve this alone. Local institutions such as the Johnson County Board of Supervisors have invested in youth-development programs in an effort to prevent juvenile crime and delinquency, and there has been a 28 percent decrease in complaints to the Johnson County Juvenile Court Office.

These are positive indicators on the direction of juvenile crime. We can only hope that these efforts will keep up the pressure and stop juvenile offenders before they become another cog in the machine.

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