Five Ways North Dakota Can Revamp Its 50-Year-Old Juvenile Justice Policy

Jacob Agus-Kleinman


The North Dakota Uniform Juvenile Court Act—the major legislation governing how the juvenile justice system operates in North Dakota—has remained largely unchanged for nearly 50 years. This means that much of it is not in accordance with the latest research on how to effectively promote positive behavior change among youth and young adults and improve public safety. Now, North Dakota leaders are working to bring the policy up to date.

To align this legislative language with best practices and aid youth-serving agencies in supporting young people in the juvenile justice system, a North Dakota task force partnered with The Council of State Governments Justice Center to conduct a preliminary assessment and identify opportunities for change.

The assessment included a review of statutes, policies, and procedures, along with numerous focus groups with representatives from juvenile courts, probation, behavioral health, the legislature, prosecution and defense, community organizations, and more. The findings were presented to the task force and the interim judiciary committee in late July.

The assessment identified three key challenges for North Dakota’s juvenile justice system: lack of statewide coordination, overreliance on punitive responses, and limited capacity for evidence-based practices.

  • Lack of Statewide Coordination
    The absence of a statewide approach means that the administration of justice, adherence to research, services, and, ultimately, system performance and outcomes differ across the state.
  • Overreliance on Punitive Responses
    School personnel and resource officers, law enforcement, and others often refer youth whose behavior does not present a public safety risk to the juvenile justice system simply to connect them to services.
  • Limited Capacity for Evidence-Based Practices
    There is little program, provider, workforce, and technological capacity to implement policies and practices rooted in research, but it is unclear where that gap stems from.

In order to address these concerns, the task force is considering potential reforms to both statute and practice, including the following:

  1. Decriminalize so-called “unruly” behaviors and develop pathways to serve youth outside of the justice system.
  2. Establish more stringent criteria and research-based processes for system decisions, particularly detention and out-of-home placement.
  3. Invest limited resources into building a more robust continuum of community-based services across the state and for specific populations and communities.
  4. Strengthen statewide commitment to and capacity for evidence-based services, quality assurance, and data collection.
  5. Align statute with the above reforms and current research and best practices more generally.

Over the next few months, the North Dakota legislature will consider sweeping legislative reform to the juvenile justice code and will conduct further assessments of the juvenile justice system as necessary.