BISMARCK-Someone as young as 7 may be held criminally responsible in the state of North Dakota.

But that could change.

A bill unanimously passed out of the state's interim Justice Reinvestment Committee would revise the state's age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10.

State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said the legislation reflects "what's going on on the ground anyway" for younger referrals to juvenile court, as well as a national trend of raising the age to about 10. According to North Dakota's 2017 juvenile court report, 2 percent of referrals to juvenile court last year for delinquent or unruly behavior were for kids ages 10 and younger.

"Just the types of services an 8-year-old needs is so different than the juvenile court system," Armstrong said.

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That's just one topic concerning juvenile justice that's come under the microscope in the past year in North Dakota, and stakeholders in the juvenile court system have their plates full with others.

The Dual Status Youth Initiative is looking at how to better serve youth and families in the child welfare and justice systems.

North Dakota's Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group, charged with monitoring compliance of federal juvenile legislation, is exploring methods, such as evidence-based prevention, amid decreasing federal dollars.

One child, two systems

North Dakota's Division of Juvenile Services, the state court system, the state Department of Human Services and the advisory group teamed up about a year ago to form the Dual Status Youth Initiative with help from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center to study best practices for youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

"The main goal of it is to basically say, OK, if there's a family that is dually involved with systems, how can the systems work together to stop this family from progressing deeper into the system?" said Cory Pedersen, director of juvenile court for the Bismarck and Dickinson areas.

He said from 2015-16 data, the group identified 241 youth in North Dakota in both systems.

Recommendations are forthcoming in July and likely will include a memorandum of understanding between the state Supreme Court and Human Services on sharing juveniles' information, such as demographics, names and dates of birth, according to Pedersen.

"There's always been this misnomer, I think, over the years, and some of it's because records are so protected for kids, that we shouldn't share this information," Pedersen said. "Actually, the feds kind of encourage that we find a way to work together and share this information."

Lisa Jahner, juvenile justice specialist with the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the Dual Status Youth Initiative gets agencies together on a common theme: "Everybody putting in a little bit of money to make something big happen."

'Bigger bang for the buck'

The North Dakota Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group is a board of 20 members appointed by the governor and tasked with overseeing compliance of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which also mandated Jahner's position. She's held the role for 20 years, during which federal funding to the state for youth programming has decreased from $2.4 million annually to $400,000.

The group is exploring school engagement and evidence-based prevention, according to Jahner, pointing to "things that are going to have the bigger bang for the buck," including restorative justice programming between juvenile offenders and victims, which focuses on improving relationships rather than punishing or removing a child from school.

The advisory group also identifies priorities for its three-year juvenile justice plan, such as disproportionate minority contact and alternatives to detention.

"We look at small pockets of success and work towards continuing to improve our systems for kids and families for the state," Pedersen said.

The horizon

No one can say what may happen in next year's legislative session when budgets are set for the 2019-21 biennium. Concerns include what kind of cuts could affect the court system, especially the juvenile court.

Aaron Birst, legal counsel for the North Dakota Association of Counties, presented those early trepidations to the interim Justice Reinvestment Committee last month.

The judicial branch isn't bound by Gov. Doug Burgum's proposed guidelines of 5 percent and 10 percent reductions to executive branch agencies, with a 3 percent contingency.

"On the other hand, we also need to be mindful that if the revenues are projected to be down that we can't necessarily just ignore that and say we're not going to do our part," Justice Lisa Fair McEvers said. "I think the judiciary has had a history of trying to do its part. If we have to tighten our belt, we try to do that, but, at some point there, you can't tighten it as far."

Pedersen said the state could consider reinvesting in community services for kids in the juvenile justice system - keeping families together instead of sending youth to expensive placements or services that are not located where they live.

"I think the people that have to make these decisions, it's a tough gig - legislators, the governor's office, the chief justice," he said. "They have to make tough decisions on where the priorities are. What kind of justice do we want in the state? What kind of services do we want?"