Recent adolescent brain research reveals that the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which filters emotion into logical response, is not fully developed until about age 21. Youth are biologically wired to have a sense of invulnerability for risky behaviors and impulsive responses, along with a know-it-all attitude, and consequently exercise poor judgment. Generally, it is their nature to “do dumb things,” which may involve breaking the law. For this reason juvenile justice, unlike the adult system, is focused primarily on rehabilitation.
As a protective measure for rehabilitation, the juvenile code prohibits the detention of accused youth unless there is convincing evidence that the youth will not return to court or presents a likelihood of committing serious bodily harm to others. Many courts use a detention assessment instrument (DAI) to assess if detention is required. Only a youth scoring high risk is recommended for detention, protecting medium- and low-risk youth from risk factors associated with unnecessary detention.
Some police have criticized DAI, claiming it “mandates” the release of youth unless they score high risk. When juveniles break the law, the police may ask juvenile court intake officers for permission to lock up the accused youth, pending a hearing. Misunderstandings sometimes occur when intake denies the request to detain. These disputes are often because police officers do not understand the legal restrictions applying to the detention of youth or the DAI requirement for courts to provide alternatives to detention for medium-risk kids. Such alternatives are proven to provide effective community safety without detention.
When juvenile detention is misused, the community is victimized by a system of ignorance that creates more criminals. We live in a free society? Why then, are African-American youth six times more likely and Latino youth three times more likely to be suspended, expelled and referred to court than white youth for the same infractions? We must make careful, unbiased decisions regarding detention if we are to reverse this “cradle to prison pipeline.”
I require the use of the DAI because it is an objective instrument that removes racial, ethnic and socioeconomic biases that often find their way into detention decision-making. The DAI, grounded in years of evidence-based research, additionally maintains safety in the community by promoting alternatives to detention for youth not detained. The proper use of the DAI provides that delicate balance between community safety and youth rehabilitation by allowing for judicial overrides and discretion.
The DAI is not the problem. Those who fail to use it properly create the problem. Recently, a youth transferred to my jurisdiction from Fulton County. The police incident report stated that the arresting officer’s request to contact court intake for a detention decision was denied by his supervisor, citing a medium-risk DAI score. I was dumbfounded. The DAI requires that medium-risk youth, if released, must have conditions. These conditions include a number of options such as electronic monitoring, house arrest, curfew and tracking services. I placed this medium-risk youth on a GPS monitor; something Fulton would have no doubt done, had they been given that opportunity.
I wonder how many youth are released without conditions by police because they assume a low DAI score? Police want to protect the community. Sadly, their misunderstanding of the DAI, which allows for judicial and discretionary overrides, may produce an opposite result.
Steven Teske is a juvenile judge in Clayton County and immediate past president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges.
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