The Juvenile Justice Act Needs an Overhaul

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

The landscape in juvenile justice has changed a lot since 1992, but the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which provides critical federal funding to states to comply with a set of core requirements designed to protect children and meet their unique needs, has essentially not been updated in more than 20 years.

Reauthorization is sorely needed to overhaul the law so that it meets the most pressing issues in juvenile justice today, and acts as a catalyst for significant reforms.

Originally passed in 1974, theJJDPA was last reauthorized in 2002 and few changes were made to it.

The last time before that was 1992.

Why does the Act need need a new overhaul?

Here is just one reason: one of the core protections in the law, the Jail Removal protection, requires states to keep children under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, out of adult jails or lockups. When this provision was included in the law in 1980, there were an estimated 300,000 children in adult jails and lock ups annually throughout the country.

Since then, this core protection has effectively stopped the placement of hundreds of thousands of children in facilities every year.

However, there is a loophole in the law that allows youth charged as adults to be placed in adult jails. And the law doesn’t prohibit placing youth in adult prisons. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch estimated in a recent report, “Growing Up Locked Down,” that 100,000 youth cycle through adult jails and prisons every year.

Through a JJDPA reauthorization, this loophole could be closed so that youth in the justice system are protected from the dangers of adult jails and prisons.

Another example is the “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO” core protection that 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 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.

Unfortunately, a 1980 amendment to the law—called the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception— has allowed status offenders to continue to be locked up for their second and subsequent status offenses, such as violating a court order not to commit another status offense.

While judges in many states are effectively and proactively addressing the needs of these youth without resorting to detention, too many young kids are still finding their way into the juvenile justice system unnecessarily.

And girls are disproportionally affected by the DSO protection: they are 170 percent more likely to be arrested for status offenses than boys and receive more severe punishment than boys.

Reauthorization of the JJDPA could eliminate the VCO exception and end the needless detention of all status offenders, especially girls who are most impacted.

The JJDPA’s “Disproportionate Minority Contact” (DMC) provision requires states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system. The DMC provision was added to the law because of the huge disparities in the treatment of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

While there are promising efforts in a number of states, so much more must be done. A recent U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division investigation into the operations of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County Tennessee and 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.

Updating the JJDPA through a reauthorization would provide an opportunity to substantially strengthen the DMC provision to ensure states are effectively reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

And to add to these compelling reasons, there’s one more.

The reauthorization process itself ensures that the authorizers, in this case the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Education and Workforce Committee, get invested in the legislation so that when it comes time for the funding to be allocated—which happens annually—they can then be tapped as champions to push their appropriator colleagues to invest adequate resources.

If the authorizers and appropriators are the same in some cases such as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy, that is an ideal way to get them to ensure the bill is adequately funded.

The lapse in the JJDPA reauthorization has not only allowed the law to languish and become less relevant to the pressing issues in juvenile justice. The lengthy delay in the JJDPA reauthorization has put the funding further in jeopardy.

With a new OJJDP Administrator at the helm, it is an opportunity for the Administration to redouble its efforts to work with Congress to advance a meaningful reauthorization of the JJDPA.

And with Congress grappling with how best to respond to the recent tragedy at Newtown, a JJDPA reauthorization could be part of a comprehensive investment in our young people.

Liz Ryan is President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice and co-chairs the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign of the National Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC). She welcomes comments from readers. Please click here to see a detailed set of legislative, funding and administrative recommendations from the NJJDP Coalition.

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