Juvenile Justice 40 Years On: Unfinished Business


The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is by far the most crucial legislative measure enacted by Congress to address the treatment of youth offenders in detention facilities across the country. Since its inception in 1974, the Act has been the driving force in federally funded research to evaluate and address challenges facing young people in American prisons.

The Act, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, set federal standards for states dealing with locked-up juveniles. In exchange for complying with the guidelines, the states receive funding to help put these rules into action. This has been vital to improving conditions for youth offenders, because it puts federal muscle behind state reforms.

Nevertheless, a review by The Crime Report of the Act's accomplishments shows that while the JJDPA has spurred meaningful change and has drawn national attention to the dire conditions facing imprisoned youth, several of the most important issues the legislation aimed to address have persisted.

A report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released in April found that racial disparities have increased despite the overall drop in youth incarceration. “While the total number of incarcerated youth has declined in many states, the proportion of youth of color among all youth receiving court dispositions grew substantially” the report states.

The 1,250-person study looked at 250 juveniles from five counties spread across the country: Dallas County, Texas; Summit County, Ohio; Alameda County, California; Jefferson County, Alabama; and Peoria County, Illinois. It showed that in 2002, around 23 percent of all juvenile placements were minority youth in either non-secure or secure facilities; this increased to approximately 37 percent in 2012. During the same years, the placement of white youth remained nearly unaltered.

In another report scheduled for formal release next month, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences charged that states face no real federal pressure to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. The report calls on the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to strengthen a core requirement of the 1974 Act concerning treatment of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The law says states must address disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, but doesn't say they must reduce it, according to University of Virginia law Prof. Richard Bonnie, co-author of the report, which asked the OJJDP to require states to go beyond the “data-collection aspects” and develop specific plans for reducing disparities.

“It's much more of an action-oriented approach to this,” Boone told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange this week. “There is just widespread concern about … racial and ethnic disparities in the administration of justice generally and, in particular, in connection with juvenile justice; and I think together with that a considerable level of frustration about why we seem not to be making substantial progress. … It seemed there was a real opportunity here for OJJDP to take a big step forward.”

On the positive side—and it's unclear whether this is due to the JJDPA—this comes at a time when fewer young people are being locked up in America than at any other point since 1975, according to a study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The 2013 study showed the number of youths in correction facilities during a single day dropped from 107,637 recorded in 1995 to 70,792 in 2010.

The overall number of incarcerated youth plummeted by 41 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the Department of Justice. And the number of young people sent to residential placement from 1997 to 2011 for committing status offenses decreased by a staggering 64 percent.

Four Principles

Four core guiding principles now anchor the Act.

The Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) aimed to stop youths from being detained for status offenses like running away from home or underage drinking. Sight and Sound Separation sought to prevent contact between juvenile and adults in jail. Both were part of the original 1974 legislation.

In 1980, the Jail Removal facet was added to prevent the placement of youth in adult jails – except under limited circumstances – after evidence showed that such placement led to suicide, physical, mental, and sexual assault. And in 1992, the Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC) provision was initiated to help states address racial disparity among young people in prisons, and required a federal examination to see if the number of minorities behind bars were unbalanced.

Some states are now pursuing alternatives to incarceration, and have made reforms in order to protect children from serving in adult prisons. Jurisdictions around the United States have adopted the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), a nationwide effort of local and state juvenile justice systems, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to offer home detention as an alternative to jail.

In 2012, Connecticut allowed 17-year-olds to go under the umbrella of the juvenile justice system in order to stop teenagers from staying in adult prisons. In 2013, Georgia updated its juvenile code, most notably to prohibit jailing youths under the age of 18 for status offenses.

And in New York, a program called “Close to Home” recently sought to rehabilitate youth offenders by transferring them from jails to residential facilities with available educational and mental health resources. These and other improvements within the juvenile justice system represent great strides.

But among other still-to-be-addressed issues is the reality that 75 percent of all youth incarcerated in the U.S. are locked up for nonviolent offenses, according to a recent study by the W. Haywood Burns Institute. This is problematic because the effects of jail can be life-long. Those who are held in facilities can feel the effects of being exposed to violence and mental and physical abuse in prisons, instead of being rehabilitated by them.

One harmful example is the use of solitary confinement for young people, sometimes for minor infractions. I wrote about this topic for The Crime Report in 2012 following a report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which traced the nationwide use of solitary confinement to punish juvenile offenders.

The report states this disciplinary tactic “makes many young people feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences.”

In May, Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the use of solitary confinement for young people, calling the practice a “serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.” Holder, in a weekly video message, continued to say that these cases of solitary confinement were “all too common.”

Another major issue facing states is the movement of juveniles into criminal courtrooms and adult prisons. For example, in New Orleans, there has been a roughly 30 percent drop in juvenile arrests between 2009 and 2013, but a major increase in young people being transferred into criminal court, according to a source who practices Louisiana juvenile litigation but did not want his name published.

This can move teenagers into adult prisons instead of juvenile centers. And it's happening around the country.

So what would help alleviate these issues?

Failure to Reauthorize

To start with, the Act needs to be reauthorized by Congress. The last time regulations were issued was in 1996; and since 2002 there have not been any alterations to the legislation.

That means the nation has not kept up with research showing the continued inequities and shortcomings in our treatment of troubled young people, ranging from increasing racial disparities to the use of solitary confinement and juveniles sent to adult prisons.

Robert Listenbee, President Barack Obama's appointee to head the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection, speaking at a conference last year, said new regulations and protections would be handed down in January, 2014.

That has yet to happen.

Instead, Congress eliminated the longstanding Juvenile Accountability Block Grants (JABG), a U.S. Department program geared to aid state and local juvenile justice systems. The JABG, which sprang up in the 90s, witnessed a 90 percent allocation reduction since 2002, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington-based youth advocate organization. This follows a Congressional trend of decreasing funding for juvenile justice initiatives, which have seen an overall ten percent dip since 2002.

The trend undermines what the President said he wanted to accomplish this year.

In February, Obama pledged to aid young men of color throughout the country in an initiative called My Brother's Keeper. It's primary objective is to “help more of our young people stay on track,” the President said at the time. Working on juvenile justice issues would be essential to the success of this program.

By evaluating and repairing the current dilemmas plaguing the juvenile justice system, youth throughout America who are already fighting against the odds will have a better chance to thrive.

Despite what the JJDPA has accomplished in 40 years, more still needs to be done to ensure the safety and fair treatment of incarcerated youth around the country.

For some critics, that requires a complete overhaul to bring the Act up to date with contemporary thinking about juvenile justice.

“In its present incarnation, the Act is outdated and inconsistent with what we now know works best for young people, families and communities,” Marie Williams, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said in an email to The Crime Report.

“A broad range of new research and innovations have occurred in the field of juvenile justice since the Act was last authorized nearly 12 years ago. Congress must act to reauthorize the JJDPA and bring our juvenile justice systems in line with what we now know results in the best outcomes for our youth and our neighborhoods.”

Henrick Karoliszyn, a New Orleans based crime reporter, was a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. He welcomes readers' comments, and can also be reached on Twitter at @Henrick_AK.

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