A new analysis of how the state handles troubled kids has plenty of critical comments about the current system. That’s appropriate, because there are many things to criticize about the way teenagers who run into trouble in school, with their families or with the law are treated.

The present system wasn’t so much designed as created piecemeal in reaction to a variety of problems. For that reason, some of its features conflict with others, and those interactions can make things worse for teens even as the system tries to help them.

While no system can help every teenager with problems, doing some things better could improve the odds for many or even most of the children who encounter various parts of it.

The report, compiled by the state’s Juvenile Justice Task Force, which includes representatives from the legal, educational and human services fields, called for changes in the state’s policies on juvenile incarceration, schooling and community services.

Since teens who drop out of school are at very high risk of negative consequences ranging from drug use to disease to violence, the report recommends action to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2016 and 95 percent by 2020. The rate was 80 percent in 2006-07.

The report says incarceration rates should be reduced by 50 percent by 2015, because confining teens puts them in contact with hardened offenders and inclines them toward worse behavior after their release, even in the state’s two juvenile detention facilities, Long Creek and Charleston.

Finally, troubled teens need alternative educational and criminal justice models designed to reach kids who have been either put off or left behind by traditional schools and who would be harmed, not helped, by confinement under current conditions.

None of those options will be easy, as shortfalls in state funding are, for example, closing residential treatment facilities and forcing judges to incarcerate juveniles instead.

School programs to track and help potential and actual dropouts also need improvement, and the present oversight system is the responsibility of several state agencies, so children can fall into the cracks between them.

Some improvements have been included in a new law, so there’s hope for some change soon. Still, more needs to be done, and it could be costly.

But, because a career criminal costs society between $1.3 million and $2.4 million in legal and social losses, the cost of doing nothing is also high, the experts say.


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