Juvenile service workers say changes to North Dakota’s juvenile justice system are making a difference

Published: Jun. 21, 2022 at 9:12 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Since juvenile courts were established in North Dakota in 1911, lawmakers have worked to address crime rates among youth.

At the start of the 2021 legislative session, HB 1035 was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee as the Commission on Juvenile Justice began updating the Uniform Juvenile Court Act.

“Those of us who work in juvenile justice have attempted to make some progress with issues over the last few years, especially as we have learned more about child development and what works with juvenile justice,” said Lisa Bjergaard, director of the ND Division of Juvenile Services at the legislative session in January 2021.

The largest overhaul to the system in 52 years, the new Juvenile Court Act, went into effect one year ago, and changes continue to roll out.

For kids in the justice system, one major change is that kids now are presumed indigent and assigned representation. This means attorneys for the ND Legal Counsel for Indigents see about a 50% increase in case assignments.

“It’s a huge increase for us in responsibility. But also, a huge step in the right direction. For kids facing juvenile issues, sometimes it’s kind of thought that you just admit to what happened and you get the help you need and when you turn 18 it all comes off your record. The problem is there’s life-long consequences that come from juvenile adjudication,” said Travis Finck, executive director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents.

Other changes include rebranding issues under the law, like redefining “unruly children” to “children in need of services,” among other terms, and building up school and human service zones to redistribute resources to kids in need.

“Anecdotally, what we are hearing from attorneys and our juvenile court officers is I think it’s making a real difference. You know, helping kids understand and protect their futures but also learn from what they may have done wrong and the delinquency things, and helping victims and the whole process of reconciliation,” said Finck.

Some changes have already taken effect. Others have sunup provisions. School-based intervention methods are being built up to divert kids with low-level infractions away from the courts.

“Let’s face it. Our children are our future,” added Finck.

Some school-based intervention methods will begin this year and some next year.

In 2021, nearly 2,500 children in need of services and nearly 5,000 delinquent children made their way through North Dakota courts.

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