Juvenile justice systems need special security care

Thomas R. Temin

Kids in trouble. It's a tragic reality, and one that casts a lengthy shadow. In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, juvenile courts handled more than 1.7 million cases, ranging from myriad curfew violations to 2,000 homicides.

The latest information technology can help court officers, social workers, school principals, prosecutors and public defenders do their jobs. They're juggling the dual duties of protecting society from young offenders and trying to turn around the lives of offenders who, behind their often hardened expressions, are children with needs, vulnerabilities, hopes and futures.

Designing juvenile justice systems takes special care, as GCN/State & Local associate editor Donna Young reports this month. The systems must be integrated across a broad array of agencies that work with troubled youngsters. The systems ideally form statewide architectures for justice IT.

Perhaps the toughest problem juvenile justice system designers face is security. Generally speaking, proceedings in juvenile court are confidential. Records of juvenile proceedings usually are sealed and often contain sensitive family and health information. The records often are destroyed when an offender reaches maturity. One purpose of confidentiality is to assure that an early mistake doesn't blight a teen's chances to turn his or her life around.

But state and local justice agencies must balance the need for confidentiality against the obligation to protect society as a whole, and often other children, from harm at the hands of young offenders.

System designers are aware that teen offenders overlap with the community of computer hackers fully capable of breaking into systems with weak security. Indeed, student technicians often maintain the systems that schools use to access juvenile justice data. Youthful offenders might be tempted to blackmail a student network operator to hack into juvenile justice data. School networks aren't noted for their airtight security.

Paying attention to security in juvenile justice systems can prevent a broad range of mishaps, from dangerous young offenders going free to innocent teens being assigned to grim high-security institutions.

Young reports that a new wave of federal grants is on its way to state governments to pay for studies about how to build comprehensive justice systems. State IT professionals must design security structures that will balance the competing needs of society for information about the guilty with the rights of accused children.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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