Juvenile Justice Reform: No Longer a Partisan Issue


Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved S. 1169, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 2015. First signed into law by President Gerald Ford on September 7, 1974, and most recently reauthorized in 2002, the JJDPA embodies a partnership between the federal government and U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia to protect children and youth in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, to effectively address high-risk and delinquent behavior and to improve community safety.

Moreover, at the time it first passed, the JJDPA represented a national consensus—that juvenile justice was a non-partisan issue, of equal concern to young people, families and communities all across the country. In fact, all but one United States Senator voted for the original Act.

Now, more than seven years overdue for reauthorization and suffering from not-so-benign neglect, the JJDPA remains the only federal statute that sets out national standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system, and that provides direction and support for state juvenile justice system improvements.

In essence, the JJDPA codifies what we have come to think of as good old-fashioned common-sense: kids, even when they come into conflict with the law, should be treated as kids—not, as the Supreme Court itself has said, like “miniature adults.”

As such, the JJDPA requires young people to be “sight-and-sound” separated from adult inmates when held in the same facilities; that they not be jailed for so called “status offenses” like running away from home or skipping school; that they not be held in adult jails and lock-ups except for very minimal periods and under limited circumstances; and finally, that we address the disproportionate contact that minority youth have with various key points of the juvenile justice process.

Last week's bill would build upon these national standards by reducing the placement of youth in adult jails pre-trial, by providing more structure to the law’s requirement to decrease racial and ethnic disparities, and by phasing out exceptions that allow the detention of youth who have engaged in status offense behaviors.

The bill also promotes the use of alternatives to incarceration, calls for the implementation of trauma-informed, evidence-based practices, improves conditions and educational services for incarcerated youth, and increases accountability for states receiving funding under the Act. Ultimately, what S.1169 does is ensure that the flagship federal juvenile justice law finally reflects the last decade's worth of research, innovation and new knowledge about what works to keep kids out of the system; and if they are in it, to keep that contact as safe, abbreviated and effective as possible.

While the possible reauthorization of a 40-year old statute may not be headline news to the average layperson, for those of us in the field it's a watershed moment.

That's not just because the bill passed out the Senate Judiciary Committee and may make its way to a floor vote, but because of the way it passed—with solid bipartisan support. In addition to the co-sponsors, Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill's co-sponsorsinclude Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), Senator Marico Rubio (R-FL), and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

This list of co-sponsors is illustrative of yet another piece of new knowledge: that juvenile justice reform is not a partisan issue and just makes good common sense. Gone are the days when policy discourse about how to address the needs of disconnected and system-involved youth became polarized over discussions of the mythical “young super-predator.”

Still, this change has been a long time coming.

Over the past two years, while we have seen federal lawmakers cross the aisle to support measures to end the mass incarceration crisis and reform sentencing laws, relatively few have turned their attention to the juvenile justice system. This is both unfortunate and shortsighted. Research shows that involvement with the juvenile justice system is one of the most significant predictors of later involvement with the adult criminal justice system.

The recent vote is a strong signal to the field that this realization is beginning to take hold. There is a growing consensus that the best way to begin to empty the prisons of tomorrow is by refining and retooling the juvenile justice system to focus on producing positive outcomes for youth, families and communities today.

Perhaps now, following the exemplary bipartisan leadership of Senators Charles Grassley and Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate, we can persuade members of the House to get themselves in order.

Marie N. Williams is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), a nationwide coalition of State Advisory Groups and allies dedicated to preventing children and youth from becoming involved in the courts and upholding the highest standards of care when youth are charged with wrongdoing and enter the justice system. She welcomes readers' comments.

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