TWIN FALLS — When police arrest a man suspected of robbing a bank, you see his name in breaking news alerts. When a woman gets a prison sentence, you see her mug shot on the newspaper's front page.
But when the suspect in an assault or a theft is a juvenile, you may learn almost nothing about the case.
As Magic Valley's recent high-profile juveniles cases have shown, Idaho's juvenile justice system is far different than the adult criminal justice system and often much more secretive.
When three Dietrich High School football players were charged in March in connection with the sexual assault of a teammate, only the names of the two players charged as adults were made public, while the third boy’s case was completely sealed. When a gun went off at Robert Stuart Middle School in May, officials released very limited information, saying only that three juveniles had been detained; their names and the results of their cases remain sealed. And when allegations began to swirl around the reported sexual assault of a young girl at the Fawnbrook Apartments in June, officials spoke out only to dispel rumors about the case.
Juvenile cases are often kept under seal to protect both the victim and the offender. That may be frustrating for a public that wants answers, but the Idaho juvenile justice system's “balanced approach” philosophy aims at holding kids accountable while also rehabilitating them and protecting the community.
In the early 1990s, with juvenile crime rates skyrocketing across the state, the Idaho Legislature authorized a committee to study the state’s juvenile justice system and suggest improvements.
In 1995, the Legislature adopted a new juvenile justice plan that radically changed the way the system worked — taking power away from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and creating the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.
Two decades later, the state is still operating under the basic framework created in 1995, the Juvenile Corrections Act. That act implemented the “balanced approach” with a three-pronged focus: accountability, community protection and competency development.
The new department's mission: “to prevent or reduce juvenile crime in partnership with communities through prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration.”
Attorneys and judges who work in the juvenile justice system have varying views on whether IDJC is fulfilling its mission, and all agree there are issues with the system. But overall, they view it positively.
Is the system working?
The data suggest the Juvenile Corrections Act of 1995 is working remarkably well to prevent or reduce juvenile crime.
Juvenile arrests have plummeted over the past 20 years, from 24,526 in 1996 to 9,264 last year, according to statewide statistics gathered by Idaho State Police.
But some who work in the system question the reliability of ISP’s arrest stats and say that if there’s any shift in the number of juveniles entering the system, it’s actually rising.
Attorney Rockne Lammers is the public defender for misdemeanor juvenile cases in Jerome County. Over a lunch of chips and cottage cheese this month at Oop’s Deli in Jerome, Lammers said the number of misdemeanor juvenile cases he receives “is not dipping and going away.”
“I haven’t noticed any decrease in the last number of years I’ve been doing juvenile (cases) in this county,” Lammers said.
Around the same table at Oop’s sat Brad Calbo and Stacey DePew, whose law firm, Calbo and DePew, acts as the public defenders for Jerome County’s felony juvenile cases. They agreed with Lammers that there’s been no noticeable dip in juvenile cases that would correlate with the nosediving arrest numbers.
“That would not make sense to me,” Calbo said. “They seem to be going up.”
Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs and his deputy who handles juvenile cases, Janice Kroeger, also expressed their doubts during a Sept. 9 interview in Loebs’ office.
“I would say the numbers are up,” Kroeger said.
“I’m amazed by that figure, if it’s accurate,” Loebs chimed in. “It doesn’t necessarily tell us how many cases we have, and it’s a statewide number, so it can be easily affected by whatever they’re doing in Ada County. But I don’t think our numbers are down.”
Someone, however, did believe caseloads were down: 5th District Magistrate Judge Mark Ingram, who spoke by phone Sept. 14 from the Gooding County Courthouse, where he was hearing juvenile cases.
“I have one little trial that starts at 1:30 p.m., and my morning was just a few cases,” said Ingram, chairman of the Idaho Supreme Court’s juvenile justice advisory team of magistrate judges. “I contrast that with what it was three years ago, when my days in Gooding started at 9 and went to 5. That hasn’t been true for quite a while.”
A better number to track juvenile court caseloads, at least over the past five years, comes from the Idaho Supreme Court’s latest annual report. That report backed up what Ingram has observed, showing that the number of juvenile cases filed across the state has dropped from 9,853 in fiscal year 2011 to 8,036 in fiscal 2015.
Going further back into the reports, though, the statistics become muddled with discrepancies. That’s attributable to two factors, said Taunya Jones, the senior manager for policy and planning in the Supreme Court’s administrative office.
“In 2010, I believe it was, we started reporting on fiscal year rather than calendar year,” Jones said. “Also, in older reports, we included reopened cases, but in newer reports, we only counted new case filings.”
Other statistics show the Juvenile Corrections Act has decreased the number of juvenile in custody. In 1997, the average daily count of juvenile offenders committed to state custody was 474. In 2012, it was down to 337.
County-operated detention facilities have seen a similar decline in the average daily count of juveniles detained, from a high of 260 in 2008 to 184 in 2012.
At one of them, the Snake River Juvenile Detention Center in Twin Falls, serving Twin Falls, Blaine, Gooding, Lincoln, Jerome and Camas counties, the average daily population in 2015 was 13 juveniles, or about half of what the 27-bed facility can hold. In 2012, 813 juveniles were admitted; last year, the figure was down to 690.
Judges and public defenders point to those data as proofs of the system's success.
Issues with the system
None of that is to say there aren't issues with the system. The homepage of IDJC’s website, for instance, features a prominent area for the reporting of sexual abuse of juveniles committed to IDJC's custody.
“That’s kind of endemic in these institutions, unfortunately, but there’s been things done to address that now,” said retired Judge Jack Varin, who spent nearly 30 years on the bench. In 1994, Varin was appointed juvenile justice judge in Gooding, Lincoln, Camas, Jerome and Twin Falls counties, and he played a key role in shaping the Juvenile Corrections Act of 1995.
A lack of funding and lack of resources to help juvenile offenders are also major issues.
What could the state do better to help kids? Calbo and DePew answered in unison: “Fund treatment.”
“It’s the same thing they can do for adults,” DePew added. “Fund treatment.”
Varin offered a similarly quick and emphatic response when asked if judges have the proper resources at their disposal to help kids struggling with mental health, drug abuse or other problems.
“No,” he said with pursed lips and a shake of his head before he’d even heard the end of the question. “No.”
More money is needed to help establish good resources for judges and others to treat juveniles, Varin said, and not just more money but “more efficient ways of using the money.”
For the 2016 fiscal year, the Idaho Legislature budgeted $51.5 million for juvenile corrections, down by $200,000 from the previous year.
Ingram pointed out more nuanced flaws in the system. With so many people and agencies involved — schools, police, Health and Welfare, community-based treatment centers — it can be difficult getting people on the same page and getting the priorities of each agency to match.
“We should be dealing with kids in court who are genuinely dangerous,” Ingram said. “We shouldn’t be dealing with kids who we’re annoyed with … we should be dealing with the kids we’re afraid of. And that’s a pretty small fraction. The rest, many have developmental disabilities, mental health issues and substance abuse problems. We can deal with them without necessarily having them dragged through the criminal process.”
But others who have the power to refer juveniles for prosecution “may not see the world that way.”
“Accountability in some people’s minds means punishment,” Ingram said.
The judge also said a lot of treatment programs are too “one-size-fits-all” and might not be specific enough to each juvenile offender. And, because most treatment programs are group programs, it can be dangerous getting like-minded teens together.
“Sometimes," Ingram said, "those programs become a place where you meet your next dealer.”
Despite its flaws, Varin still sees Idaho’s juvenile justice system as “a good, competent, effective system.”
And what of those who have been through it? Alexis Walker, a 15-year-old Twin Falls High School student who spent a night in detention and is on probation, said going through the system “has helped a lot.”
“Especially my relationship with my family, it has turned that around a lot,” Alexis said in a phone interview after school. “My parole officer listens to what I say, and listens to what my parents say, and kind of acts as a mediator. It’s helped us communicate better.”
Alexis did have some criticisms of the system — being arrested and put in Snake River Juvenile Detention Center was too harsh a punishment for running away from home, she said, and it feels like most adults have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager making dumb mistakes — but overall she called her experience helpful.
She also praised the detention center's staff, calling them amazing, understanding people who were concerned about her safety and tried to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
“The building is scary, the whole idea is scary, and the beds are ridiculous,” Alexis said. “But the staff tried to make me not feel scared. They ask questions, they talk to you about why you’re there. They’re very kind, unless you’re disrespectful.”
The two systems
To better understand the juvenile justice system, it’s important to realize the ways in which it differs from the adult criminal justice system.
There’s a basic philosophical difference, Varin said: The adult system is punitive, designed at its core to punish criminals, not to rehabilitate them. Idaho’s juvenile justice system, on the other hand, is based on that three-pronged idea, giving equal consideration to accountability, community protection and competency development.
The statute that details how Idaho’s juvenile justice system works has a clear legislative intent, which is a term that comes up again and again when speaking with attorney and judges. The legislative intent of Idaho’s Juvenile Corrections Act of 1995:
“Where a juvenile has been found to be within purview of the juvenile corrections act, the court shall impose a sentence that will protect the community, hold the juvenile offender accountable for his actions, and assist the juvenile offender in developing skills to become a contributing member of a diverse community.”
Over lunch at Oop’s, DePew succinctly summed up the goal of the juvenile system.
“The first thing that always comes to me when I think of juveniles, more than any other part of the system, is the focus is supposed to be on rehabilitation, not punishment,” DePew said.
Is it, in reality? She laughed. Judges, though, are “absolutely” focused on rehabilitation, she said.
Across the table, Lammers concurred with DePew in her praise for juvenile judges.
“We’re really fortunate to have Judge Ingram as our juvenile judge,” Lammers said. “He is all about trying to do whatever he can to fashion a disposition for a juvenile that takes into account the accountability aspect and the individual’s competency development as opposed to the protection of the community.”
DePew chimed in: “His focus is to protect the community by developing (the juvenile offenders).”
That development might address vocational skills, education, communication skills, decision making and problem solving.
Varin tried to stress this point when training judges during his tenure working for the Idaho Supreme Court. In a presentation Varin used during trainings, he included a slide borrowed from a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. It explains: Adult criminal courts use punishment to induce law-abiding behavior. The juvenile court rehabilitates delinquents to prevent future criminal behavior.
“My point is, there’s a huge difference in the philosophy of the two systems,” Varin said. “With just cause.”
A prime example of the difference is the way that judges sentence offenders.
When a district court judge sentences an adult convicted of a crime, the judge must consider four objectives of criminal punishment: the good order and protection of society; deterrence of the individual and the public generally; possibility of rehabilitation; and punishment or retribution for wrongdoing.
Each time a sentence is imposed, a judge must articulate which of the four objectives he or she is considering to be the most relevant.
Juvenile judges, on the other hand, must consider and give equal importance to all three factors in the “balanced approach.” They are not supposed to consider any of the three more important than the others.
Another key difference is one that Varin said few people realize.
“The criminal justice system, with its panoply of rights, the whole system, it’s based upon common law, and it goes all the way back to England. The juvenile justice system — there’s no ‘right’ to be treated as a juvenile. This is strictly a legislative act. This next legislative session, they could do away with the juvenile justice system.”
Varin admits that’s not entirely true — in the landmark case In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles must be treated differently than adults but also given the same rights adults have when accused of a crime.
In a juvenile case, judges also have a certain amount of jurisdiction and authority over parents and legal guardians. The Juvenile Corrections Act states that a judge can fine parents or guardians up to $1,000 if their child breaks a probation agreement, and a judge can order a parent or guardian to attend parenting classes or undergo other treatment or counseling.
Parents or guardians can also be held financially responsible for damages a child causes and ordered to pay restitution.
“Most parents don’t understand that; they’re often shocked,” Varin said. “I’ve given judgments against parents in 10's of thousands of dollars in damages their kids have done.”
And one of the biggest differences between adult and juvenile courts — an issue that has brought attention recently in the Magic Valley’s high-profile cases — is the ability for juvenile judges to seal cases.
Some prosecutors say that ability is put to use far more often than the law intended.
According to the statute, all proceedings against juveniles 14 and older who are charged with felonies should be open to the public and should be made confidential only “when the court and the prosecutor agree extraordinary circumstances exist that justify records … should remain confidential because it is in the best interest of the juvenile offender.”
That wording allows a lot of wiggle room for judges — judicial discretion is the technical term — and judges in the Magic Valley have taken advantage of that.
“I think, locally, our judges close a lot more than any other judges in the state,” said Kroeger, the Twin Falls County deputy prosecutor.
Varin and Ingram want to close even more.
The argument for closing cases
Before 1995, all juvenile cases were completely sealed. The Juvenile Corrections Act of 1995 changed that, opening the cases of those 14 and older, but ultimately leaving it up to judges’ discretion.
“The world was different in 1995, not so easily accessible, but now you have the presence of the repository on the web,” Ingram said. “I would prefer to have the default be that cases are closed, but have some particular mechanism to open them to the public if there was a reason to open them to the public.”
Varin made a “valiant effort,” Ingram said, to change the default. Ingram himself has worked to change the law so that all juvenile cases are sealed. For various reasons, he said, their efforts have been thwarted.
“But I’m still working on efforts to try to change that,” Ingram said.
Why do judges want to see more juvenile cases closed? Because a juvenile record can have consequences long past an 18th birthday.
“Essentially a juvenile record right now has the same significance as a criminal record,” Varin said, tapping his dining room table for emphasis. “The internet now makes records abundantly available … And those have been bundled now by people who do credit reports and whatnot. So employers don’t necessarily distinguish between (them).”
Ingram mentioned “horror stories” of people being denied employment, schooling or housing because of a juvenile record created by making “stupid, but developmentally appropriate, mistakes.”
“It has created, in my mind, a real severe injustice,” Varin said.
Kids are kids, Ingram said, and they’re “developmentally prone to doing stupid things,” especially with peers. It’s the rare exception when there’s true criminal intent, the judge said. But those kids who do stupid things with peers shouldn’t have the mistake haunt them into their adult years.
“Walk into a room of adults and ask them, ‘How many of you, when you were under 18, did something that could be considered a felony or misdemeanor?’” Ingram said. “Ninety-five percent of hands will go up, and the other 5 percent are lying.”