A Second Chance to Advance Juvenile Justice Reforms

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

President Barack Obama's re-election offers a second chance to forge a new national direction on juvenile justice that would be strongly supported by the public, meet public safety concerns, and effectively help children, their families, and communities.

Every year, over 2 million children are arrested in the U.S., with 250,000 of these children cycled through the adult criminal justice system and over a million children handled in juvenile courts.

To address this issue, most states and localities are unfortunately using the most expensive and punitive approaches that an overwhelming body of research shows consistently produces the worst outcomes for children, their families and communities and public safety.

Spending on the ineffective, dangerous and harmful incarceration of tens of thousands of children tops $6 billion a year.

In President Obama’s first term, these issues went virtually unnoticed.

Fortunately some states have already begun to undertake reforms that move in this new direction. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently released a report, Juvenile Justice Trends in State Legislation 2001-2011, showcasing juvenile justice reforms in every region of the country, led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and governors.

The report noted that legislators are using a growing body of research on adolescent development and responding to this by changing state policies.

The Administration could accelerate the pace and scope of juvenile justice reforms throughout the country by showing strong leadership, taking concrete steps to strengthen existing efforts and launch new policy initiatives, and by more effectively investing federal resources.

Here’s how:

Appoint a permanent Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention

To steer this work, the President needs to appoint a permanent Administrator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the lead agency on juvenile justice in the federal government.

The Obama Administration is the first Administration since the office was created in 1974 that has yet to appoint a permanent Administrator. With a detailed blueprint hot off the presses from the prestigious and independent National Academy of Sciences on the importance of federal leadership on juvenile justice, the Administration should appoint a seasoned expert and manager.

Set a goal to cut youth incarceration in half within five years.

The Administration should set a bold goal to reduce youth incarceration in half within five years. States as diverse as New York, Illinois, California, Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and the District of Columbia have undertaken initiatives to reduce their over-reliance on the wasteful, dangerous and harmful incarceration of children. They are instead investing resources into more effective community based approaches.

With guidance, support and resources, more states and localities could meet this goal.

More aggressively enforce current laws and constitutional protections.

The Administration took a major step by issuing regulations this past summer to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a law unanimously approved by a bipartisan Congress in 2003 and signed into law by President George Bush.

This Administration must now ensure that all states fully embrace the regulations and that states and localities adopt best practices, such as removing youth from adult jails and prisons.

The Administration could devote more attention to ensuring that the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is implemented in all the states and is a floor not a ceiling for juvenile justice reforms.

When a new OJJDP Administrator is in place, the OJJDP Administrator should issue new JJDPA regulations and issue stronger federal guidance to push states to implement the JJDPA and reach above the law’s minimum protections for children.

For example, as part of the JJDPA compliance on the core protection to address the over-representation of youth of color in the justice system, OJJDP should aggressively push states to show how they are reducing racial and ethnic disparities at all points in the system, including the point at which children are sent to adult criminal court, the most disparate point in the juvenile justice system.

The Administration should allocate more support to expand the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in order to ensure that states are meeting constitutional requirements to provide access to quality legal counsel for children in the justice system, and to hold hearings in juvenile court before any child is transferred to adult court.

Provide states and localities adequate resources to accelerate reforms.

As next year’s budget is being crafted, the Administration must put forward a robust budget on juvenile justice and strenuously advocate for those resources during the budget process.

For example, the Administration should put forward $80 million at a minimum for Title II of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

In addition, the Administration could look for ways to more effectively use existing investments at the Department of Justice within the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, and the National Institute of Corrections to assist states in accelerating state and local juvenile justice reform efforts. The priorities should be substantially reducing the prosecution of youth in adult criminal court, removing youth from adult jails and prisons, and reducing states’ reliance on youth incarceration.

Finally, the Administration should consider modest investments to advance initiatives on family and youth engagement, addressing the needs of girls, and ensuring equity for LBGTQI youth in the justice system.

The Administration has a second chance.

Now let’s ensure that children and youth in the justice system get one too.

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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