January 31, 2012

Juvenile penalties would go too far

1-30-2012 Virginia:

Inmates preparing to return to their communities have a better chance of getting help rather than going back to prison because of attention by Gov. Bob McDonnell. He has pushed for coordinated services and better access to programs. Now he wants to give some offenders a second chance if they violate probation.

Sadly, he's going the opposite direction with teenagers, supporting legislation that will make it harder for troubled youngsters to get past their records and have a chance to start over.

Two bills would allow prosecutors to bypass juvenile court judges and send more teens to adult court, where sanctions are more punitive, public and permanent. The House bill, which passed Monday in a subcommittee, expands the list of offenses for which prosecutors can send juveniles directly to Circuit Court. Among them: participating in or recruiting for a gang. The Senate version is scheduled for a committee hearing today.

Another bill, which passed a Senate committee, would require teens older than 13 to be listed on the sex offender registry if they've been found delinquent in juvenile court - not even adult court - for rape or two other sex offenses.

Already, if a juvenile court judge finds that a teen should be on the registry, he can require it. Between 2009 and 2011, according to the bill analysis, 98 juveniles 13 or older in Virginia were judged delinquent for a sexually violent offense, and judges required 12 of the those to register as a sex offender.

Now, because the federal government is threatening to yank $600,000 a year from the state if it doesn't require registration for juvenile sex offenders, lawmakers will comply.

Sens. Tommy Norment and Bill Stanley each sponsored a version that would place teens on the registry - a permanent list - without considering any circumstances. It would take away any discretion.

The Senate committee combined the two bills and made them less egregious, deleting one requirement that registration be retroactive to 2005 and allowing youths to be placed on the non-public registry available only to law enforcement agencies and other authorized officials. The House bill does not contain those provisions.

No one is arguing that kids who commit horrendous crimes should be coddled or go free. Virginia's laws already allow prosecutors to seek lengthy prison terms in many cases.

But many other teens are on the brink, capable of learning from mistakes with help, direction and supervision. Rather than searching for ways to look tough on crime - and cutting the very education and mental health services that could help troubled kids - Virginia's leaders should insist on coordinated services that can give children a second chance.

McDonnell has repeatedly pointed out that two-thirds of the inmates being released from prison are re-arrested within three years. It was his argument for establishing a prisoner re-entry strategy.

He needs an equally strong strategy for youngsters, one that will reduce, not increase, the likelihood that troubled children will become adult criminals. ..Source.. by The Virginian-Pilot

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