Gov. Burgum Signs Bill to Modernize Juvenile Justice System

Staff Feature

Bismarck– Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bipartisan bill designed to increase access to services and improve outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The bill modernizes state law covering juvenile justice issues, which has not had a major overhaul since 1969.

“This bill will help ensure that youth in the juvenile justice system have the necessary resources to become productive members of their communities,” Burgum said. “Our state has taken an important step in improving public safety by providing these youth with additional opportunities for success.”

Patchwork reforms to the juvenile justice system have allowed North Dakota to shrink its juvenile justice population over the last decade. However, juvenile justice involvement rates have remained stubbornly high despite this progress. The state’s utilization of out-of-home commitment, where a youth is sentenced to serve in a private or state-run facility, is one of the highest rates in the country. Additionally, current state law governing the juvenile justice system did not adhere to national best practices and evidence-based research. For example, support for the use of validated risk and needs tools and language recognizing the developmental process of youth were not incorporated.

Passed with near unanimous support, House Bill 1035, the Juvenile Court Act, will assist North Dakota in aligning its systems serving juveniles with policies and practices shown to improve outcomes for youth.

The bill makes a number of significant changes to current law, including creating distinct categories for juvenile delinquency, deprivation, and child welfare in order to clearly delineate between the populations and reduce confusion in how to handle each type of case. Additionally, it replaces the designation of “unruly child” with a designation of “child in need of services”—allowing youth to access social services through human service zones without formal involvement in the justice system.

“By aligning our system with what research and evidence has shown to be most effective in supporting youth in North Dakota, we can target services to those who need them and ensure that the juvenile justice system has the tools it needs to successfully support these youth,” said Rep. Lawrence Klemin, who sponsored the legislation.

The legislation also ensures that all youth are provided a right to counsel in delinquency proceedings by presuming that they are indigent rather than basing access to counsel on their parents’ ability to pay. Additionally, the legislation requires the use of validated risk and needs assessment tools to support decisions about diversion and placement. It also restricts the use of out-of-home placement solely to meet treatment needs.

“Overall, this legislation provides the foundation for a developmentally appropriate approach to justice that supports improved outcomes and improved public safety,” said Lisa Bjergaard, director of the state’s Division of Juvenile Services. “While I’m proud of the reforms our system has made to this point, HB 1035 provides the statutory support to implement best practices and provide essential services to the youth who need it.”

To identify opportunities for reform, the state partnered with The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center to conduct an in-depth analysis of its current policies and practices. The CSG Justice Center conducted reviews of data, statute, and policy, as well as focus groups with stakeholders from across the state comprising state’s attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, court staff, law enforcement representatives, educators, tribal representatives, behavioral health practitioners, and child welfare officials. The organization presented findings from that analysis and a series of policy recommendations to members of the Commission on Juvenile Justice, which used those recommendations to create HB 1035.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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