North Dakota Modernizes Juvenile Justice System

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed bipartisan legislation on April 28 that is designed to increase access to services and improve outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The bill modernizes state law covering juvenile justice issues, which has not had a major overhaul since 1969.

Why now?

Patchwork reforms to the juvenile justice system have allowed North Dakota to shrink its juvenile justice population over the last decade. However, juvenile justice involvement rates have remained stubbornly high despite this progress. The state’s utilization of out-of-home commitment, where a youth is committed to serve in a private or state-run facility, is one of the highest rates in the country. Additionally, current state law governing the juvenile justice system did not adhere to national best practices and evidence-based research. For example, support for the use of validated risk and needs tools and language recognizing the developmental process of youth were not incorporated.

What will the legislation do?

Passed with near unanimous support, House Bill 1035, the Juvenile Court Act, will assist North Dakota in aligning its systems serving youth with policies and practices shown to improve outcomes for young people.

The bill makes a number of significant changes to current law, including the following:

  • Creating distinct categories for juvenile delinquency, deprivation, and child welfare in order to clearly delineate between the populations and reduce confusion in how to handle each type of case
  • Replacing the designation of “unruly child” with a designation of “child in need of services,” which will allow youth to access social services through “human service zones” without formal involvement in the justice system
  • Ensuring that all youth are provided a right to counsel in delinquency proceedings by presuming that they are indigent rather than basing access to counsel on their parents’ ability to pay
  • Requiring the use of validated risk and needs assessment tools to support decisions about diversion and placement and restricting the use of out-of-home placement solely to meet treatment needs

How was the legislation developed?

To identify opportunities for reform, the state partnered with The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center to conduct an in-depth analysis of its current policies and practices. CSG Justice Center staff conducted reviews of data, statute, and policy, as well as focus groups with stakeholders from across the state comprising state’s attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, court staff, law enforcement representatives, educators, tribal representatives, behavioral health practitioners, and child welfare officials. The organization presented findings from that analysis and a series of policy recommendations to members of the Commission on Juvenile Justice, which used those recommendations to create HB 1035.

What are people saying?

“This bill will help ensure that youth in the juvenile justice system have the necessary resources to become productive members of their communities. Our state has taken an important step in improving public safety by providing these youth with additional opportunities for success.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

“By aligning our system with what research and evidence has shown to be most effective in supporting youth in North Dakota, we can target services to those who need them and ensure that the juvenile justice system has the tools it needs to successfully support these youth.”

North Dakota Rep. Lawrence Klemin, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Member of the Commission on Juvenile Justice

“Overall, this legislation provides the foundation for a developmentally appropriate approach to justice that supports improved outcomes and improved public safety. While I’m proud of the reforms our system has made to this point, HB 1035 provides the statutory support to implement best practices and provide essential services to the youth who need it.”

Lisa Bjergaard, Director of North Dakota’s Division of Juvenile Services


Photo by Christopher_Boswell on Envato Elements

About the Authors

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Former Senior Policy Analyst, Corrections and Reentry
Jacob Agus-Kleinman worked with the juvenile justice team to provide technical assistance to states, counties, and nonprofit organizations to improve outcomes for youth in both criminal and juvenile justice systems. Prior to joining the CSG Justice Center, he worked with
Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, supporting states in the adoption of adult and juvenile sentencing and corrections reforms. Earlier in his career, he worked with Lawyers Without Borders, the Washtenaw County Public Defender’s Office, and as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Arab-American Family Support Center. Jacob received a BGS with a concentration in urban studies from the University of Michigan and is a Justice Policy Network Fellow.
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    Public Affairs Manager, Communications and External Affairs
    Sheridan Watson develops media relations, public affairs, and digital strategies to advance organization-wide initiatives. Prior to joining the CSG Justice Center, she served for more than 10 years as a spokeswoman and communications advisor for three members of Congress. Previously,
    she managed a portfolio of policy issues for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and served in communications roles at the Archdiocese of Washington and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Sheridan earned her ABJ in public relations from the University of Georgia and her MA in legislative affairs from The George Washington University.
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