Effort to transition older juvenile offenders to family court underway

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) State officials say they are transitioning many older teen offenders into the family court system as part of a new law to reform the juvenile justice system in Vermont. But to do that will require Vermont's Department for Children and Families to take on more work.

"It is an incredibly significant change" DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told lawmakers last week. He says the process of bringing 18 and 19-year-olds into the juvenile justice system is "transformational" and that he appreciated lawmakers giving them four years to figure out how to do it right.

Schatz says the data shows youth who go through the juvenile system are less likely to get in trouble again. "We do expect that this approach will be more successful in providing more appropriate care and treatment," he said.

Lawmakers say by talking with community partners, they've already identified seven strategies that will help make the transition, including using DCF's risk assessment tool more, collaborating more between DCF and prosecutors, and using more diversion practices. "I think we're learning more and more about brain development in young people, emerging adults. And things have really changed in the last 20, 30 years of our knowledge," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, who sponsored the original bill to reform the juvenile justice system.

Sears says they're basing it on research that shows young peoples' brains are still developing into their mid-20s, and thus their transgressions would be better handled in family court where the cases are confidential and don't leave offenders with a public criminal record. "This gives kids a chance to move forward," he said.

The 2018 law walks back strict changes to Vermont's youth offender law put in place after two 12-year-old girls were tortured, raped, and stabbed in 1981 by 15 and 16-year-old boys. One girl died and there was public outcry after the younger teen only served three years behind bars.

When asked about public safety, Senator Sears says it's on their mind in all the decisions they make with regard to changes in the juvenile justice system. The most serious crimes would still be handled in adult criminal court. But he points out that the best way to keep people safe and save taxpayers money may be to give teens who get in trouble a chance to start over. "Statistically, putting the wrong person in the wrong place -- and I'm talking about prison now -- is counterproductive," he said.

Schatz says his department will have an updated report to lawmakers on the transition in November.