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Session sees 'momentum' for North Dakota juvenile justice legislation

Cory Pedersen, center, director of juvenile court for North Dakota's South Central Judicial District, listens to a hearing last week at the state Capitol in Bismarck on House Bill 1520, or "Natalee's Law," in front of the House Judiciary Committee.  Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- Those associated with North Dakota's juvenile justice system are optimistic about the 2019 legislative session.

Several bills offer closer looks at services affecting children.

"I think kids in this session seem to have a lot of momentum," said Cory Pedersen, director of juvenile court for North Dakota's South Central Judicial District, which includes Burleigh and Morton counties.

Juvenile services in North Dakota have taken some hits in recent years. The 2017 session cut 20 percent of juvenile court staff and closed the Bottineau juvenile office.

And annual federal funding to the state for youth programming has decreased from $2.4 million to $400,000 in the past 20 years.

But the staff cuts appear to be over, and new state and federal legislation may further best practices for children in North Dakota.

Right-sizing

Up this session is House Bill 1039, which would raise North Dakota's age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10. The bill passed the House and recently received a do-pass recommendation from the Senate Judiciary Committee after passing the House.

Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, chairs that committee and said the bill is in line with national practices of raising culpability to age 10.

Children younger than 10 need a kind of accountability different than the criminal justice system, said Larson, who was a youth worker for 23 years in the Bismarck Police Youth Bureau until 2013.

"When we're talking about some legal consequences, especially with kids that end up going to juvenile court over it, it does seem to me that 10 is going to be a much more logical number to use for that age of accountability than 7," Larson said.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs the House Judiciary Committee which first heard the bill.

"We're trying to make sure we strike the right balance when it comes to consequences for actions and when it comes to the opportunity for one to turn his or her life around," Koppelman said.

Larson, who helped author the National Conference of State Legislatures 2018 report on "Principles of Effective Juvenile Justice Policy," said national practices are good to consider, but not in all circumstances.

"We are not New York or San Francisco," Larson said. "We're not the way some other communities are, and we can maintain our own Midwest integrity in that process. It's instructive to see what's going on nationally, but it's also good to keep remembering who we are."

Emotional issue

The House Judiciary Committee also on Wednesday amended and gave a do-pass to HB1520, or "Natalee's Law," which would allow access to certain juvenile court records for child sex victims' parents and mandate abused child services and assessments for treatment of juvenile offenders who committed sexual offenses.

The committee heard emotional testimony from parents whose children were victims of juvenile sex crimes, including a 4-year-old girl and a teenager.

Parents said they felt failed by the system in how the young offenders were adjudicated.

All things children

Lisa Bjergaard, director of the North Dakota Division of Juvenile Services, indicated she is excited about Senate Bill 2204, which would create an eight-year commission for children's health and well-being.

"You’ve got taxation experts. You’ve got oil experts. You need some legislators that become children’s policy experts," Bjergaard said. "That would really create for the first time a place to bring children’s issues."

Bjergaard said she hopes lawmakers don't merge the bill with SB2313, which would create a children's behavioral health commission under the state Department of Human Services that includes myriad state officials, lawmakers and representatives from tribal, education and other realms.

Then there's House Concurrent Resolution 3031, which asks Legislative Management to study the juvenile justice process. Similar legislation passed in 2017 that led to the 2019 age of culpability bill.

"I think it's always good to have these discussions because when we talk about healthy communities, healthy downtown, moving things upstream, kids are where we've got to go," Pedersen said.

"Upstream" is a concept that Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and others in state government have invoked as basically going to the earliest cause of problems, such as addiction, behavioral health or early criminal involvement.

Bjergaard said behavioral health isn't the only issue facing children. There's child development and brain science, too — and how policymakers adopt practices in line with that information.

"All systems that touch kids need to have a collective body that can really develop that depth and expertise," Bjergaard said.

A push

In the wake of the 2017 court cuts, Cathy Ferderer took on juvenile court duties for the North Dakota Supreme Court, in addition to overseeing the family mediation and guardianship monitoring programs.

This session, she's tracking many of the same bills as Pedersen and Bjergaard, including budget and treatment bills, but also substance abuse vouchers and behavioral health services.

The two children's commission bills are related to recommendations of the Dual Status Youth Initiative, a collaborative effort forged in 2017 to better serve North Dakota families involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

"There seems to be more bills out there regarding some services for children so I'm encouraged by that," Ferderer said. "I don't know how they will fare through the whole session, but the very least it seems like there are more bills than typical out there around services for kids."

Ferderer also has her eyes on the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018. The federal reform aims to keep children out of foster care and with their families.

"It seems like everyone is moving more toward trying to look at how to do some of those primary prevention efforts so that kids aren't removed from their homes in the first place," Ferderer said.

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