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Nevada Explores Literacy as Alternative to Juvenile Detention

If Thomas were an adolescent now, he might not have served 13-years in prison.

In 2000 Thomas was 15 and committed armed robbery. Nevada had just tightened laws against juvenile offenders as part of a national wave instituting harsh laws. The goal was to push back against “superpredators,’  kid criminals who didn’t show remorse.

Thomas was a first-time offender, and no one was hurt in the robbery. But under the law, he was tried as an adult and sent to prison to do hard time. Looking at forty years behind bars, Thomas pled guilty and received a reduced sentence of 13-years. He would spend his time in an adult prison.

By the time Thomas was taken to prison, the superpredator myth had been debunked. Arrest rates, for juveniles, peaked in 1997. They’ve been dropping since. Still, state juvenile facilities and adult prisons are filling up with kids as state budgets are strained, and human-rights abuses mount.

Over the last half-dozen years, Nevada, like many other states, has begun to reconsider the approach to juvenile offenders. Research shows that incarcerating youthful offenders increase the odds of a young person committing another crime.

While this news has been recognized for years, it has only recently states have moved to act. Budget shortfalls and a laundry list of state and federal court decisions regarding abusive sentencing for young people have been the catalysts.

Another factor is the dropping crime rate. After topping in 1997, the (juvenile) detention rate fell  48%, and between 1997 and 2011, 46 states reduced the rate of commitments for adolescents.

Child advocates are pushing for reform in Nevada’s youth sentencing laws.

“Some progress has been made,” says Nicholas Wooldridge, a noted Las Vegas defense attorney. “However, we can always do more.

Thomas Isn’t Unique

The “more” to which Mr. Wooldridge points may be several things. One scheme that is showing results nationally is improving reading and basic literacy skills in adolescents.

Daily, the news media reports crimes committed by youth. The subject comes in in all levels of conversations and leaves people frightened and concerned.

In the March 6 edition of Parade journal, Carl Sagan claimed reading is the key to solving the nation’s greatest problems: poverty, crime and family breakdown.

A 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education found over 40 million illiterate or barely literate adults. Some estimates place the number much higher.

The illiterate or barely literate also most likely to go to jail.

Sheryl Studley, author of “Juvenile Delinquency and Learning Disabilities: Beyond Blaming,” writes, “The chances of the juvenile client suffering from some learning disability which has no bearing on how ‘bright’ or ‘creative’ they are, but which impacts their ability to succeed in a normal language-based school environment.”

Studley suggests that juvenile delinquency should be a warning that something isn’t working.

“It is possible to plan a curriculum that will assure the success of all children and will result in a lesser need for lawyers to defend our youth,” Studley said.

If a child is constantly told they are stupid, the child will believe it, accept it and act on it.

Most individuals aren’t naive enough to believe literacy and education are the only causes of the problem. However, it is a major factor. The high cost of illiteracy and juvenile crime in American ban be cut by helping the children succeed.

Nevada Department of Education recently reported that $75/day or $27,000/annually could be saved for every youth kept out of jail. That money would provide twelve months of reading help for 15 students.

When it comes to America’s youth, an old Fram Oil Filter commercial has the message: “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

The same can be said for America’s youth. We can either invest in them now through literacy programs or invest later through prison bars.

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