Federal Justice Cuts Threaten Core Protections for Youths

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

The federal funding cuts approved under the Continuing Resolution for this next year and the further cutbacks likely under the impending sequestration, as reported by The Crime Report last week, threaten to substantially undermine the implementation of the landmark Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

One of the key core protections in the JJDPA law is the Jail Removal protection, which requires states to keep children under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, out of adult jails or lockups.

When this provision was adopted in 1980, there were an estimated 300,000 children in adult jails and lock-ups annually throughout the country. Since then, the Jail Removal core protection has effectively stopped the placement of hundreds of thousands of children in adult jails and lockups every year.

An adult jail is no place for a young person.

If youth are placed in general population, they are at high risk of sexual assault and physical abuse. If youth are placed in isolation or segregated units to “protect” them, they face extreme risk of exacerbated emotional and mental health problems, including a high chance of suicide.

Simply put, an adult jail cannot be retrofitted to safely house youth.

Knowing the dangers youth face, why would we open the door to allowing more children to be placed in adult jails?

We shouldn't.

But if we allow Congress and the Administration to continue to cut critical juvenile justice funding, that's exactly what could happen.

Another core protection, the “Disproportionate Minority Confinement” (DMC) provision, requires states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system.

In the 2002 reauthorization, the term confinement was changed to “contact” emphasizing the disparities at all points in the juvenile justice system. The JJDPA's DMC provision has ensured funding to every state to reduce racial and ethnic disparities.

As a result, there are some promising efforts in a number of states, including the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) and the Models for Change (MfC) initiative.

Much more must be done to reduce the stark disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division investigation into the operations of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County Tennessee underscores this. The department found extensive racial disparities in the treatment of African American children: African American youth are twice as likely as white youth to be recommended for transfer to adult court.

The Shelby County case demonstrates that federal funding for DMC reduction efforts should be expanded, not rolled back.

Another important JJDPA provision requires that status offenders not be detained in secure facilities. Known as the “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO provision,” this core protection applies to youth whose actions would not be considered offenses at the age of majority, such as skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol.

The DSO provision, which disproportionately affects girls, was designed to ensure that these youth, who often have unmet mental health or education needs, receive help from the appropriate human services agency rather than the justice system.

The JJDPA's DSO provision has ensured funding to every state to make it possible for them to keep status offenders out of secure facilities and in community-based programs instead.

Sustained, deep cuts to juvenile justice send the wrong message to states and localities about the importance of the federal JJDPA law and would leave many states with little incentive or support to maintain its core protections for children.

Juvenile justice funding for the Title II State Formula Grant Program of the JJDPA has already declined 69 percent in the last decade, its lowest funding levels ever.

And Congress is set to make further cuts.

The House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations bill, H.R. 5326, would drastically cut Title II funds and totally eliminate other related funding. The Senate CJS version, S. 2323, is slightly better, but both House and Senate versions are well below the President's proposed budget.

Sequestration would add millions more in cuts to federal juvenile justice funding.

“These cuts would have devastating impacts in Vermont, particularly on state implementation of the core protections under the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA),” according to Sheila Reed, Associate Director of Voices for Vermont's Children.

October is National Youth Justice Awareness Month, an effort started by one Mom whose teenage son committed suicide in an adult facility, where thousands of people are raising awareness about the status of youth in the justice system.

That should be a timely reminder to Congress and the Administration that it is essential to continue investments in—rather than undermine—core protections for children in the justice system.

Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, and Co-Chair of the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign. She welcomes comments from readers.

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