Fed Juvenile Justice Chief Promises Less Red Tape for Youth Protection Programs

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Chris Yarzab

Photo by Chris Yarzab via Flickr

For 45 years, the federal government has made a deal with states on juvenile crime: Washington will provide aid to help improve state juvenile justice systems if states enforce “core” protections for accused youth, such as not jailing them for minor offenses and keeping those who are locked up out of cells with adults.

Since states run their own juvenile systems, the law works only if states agree to participate.

In a recent announcement, federal officials said that seven states are currently not participating in the program: Arkansas, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming, as well as the territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

While the Justice Department did not explain in detail why states are dropping out, the main reason seems to be that Congress is appropriating a relatively small sum for juvenile justice, and increasing bureaucratic requirements in Washington mean that some states are concluding that it isn’t worth the hassle to obtain the money.

The amount allocated for the program was about $35 million in fiscal year 2017, a fairly small amount as federal aid goes.  The U.S. gave out nearly $89 million in fiscal year 2002.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national advocacy group, compiled a report on the funding process five years ago.

To use the example of Texas, one of the states now listed as non-participating, officials must monitor nearly 3,000 facilities for juveniles across its 254 counties to ensure compliance with the federal law.

Five years ago, when the state was receiving about $2.7 million in federal aid under what is known as Title II of the federal law, it was spending more than $240,000 on compliance.

“These figures are taking a bigger bite out of the state’s overall Title II allocations as their federal dollars continue to dwindle,” the coalition said.

The coalition and other juvenile justice advocates worked hard in the past few years to strengthen the federal law, and finally persuaded Congress to pass a reauthorization bill that was signed by President Donald Trump last year.

Those improvements are “in jeopardy” as more states decide not to comply formally with the statute, according to the coalition’s executive director, Naomi Smoot Evans.

‘Significant Struggles’

In a statement, the group says that some states “are experiencing significant struggles with compliance,” and adds, “It is our hope that states will rejoin and with [the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s] help, they will continue their commitment to system improvement.”

The federal juvenile justice agency currently is headed by Caren Harp, a Trump administration appointee who is well aware of the problem of state non-compliance.

Caren Harp

Caren Harp

Harp told The Crime Report that, “we want every state to participate” and that her agency is “trying to roll back bureaucratic requirements” that she agrees are “cumbersome.”

Although non-participating states could abandon compliance with the mandates of the federal law if they no longer receive federal funds, Harp said she is not aware of any cutbacks by those states.

“I have confidence” that every state will continue to afford protections to juveniles, she said.

For states that do not participate, the Justice Department offers funds to non-profit groups that propose ways to fill gaps by the states’ failure to obtain federal money.

For example, DOJ plans to offer about $7.5 million to nonprofits in Texas over a three-year period for juvenile justice projects. The number of youths in Texas lockups has declined from an average of more than 4,000 in the early 2000s to under 900 as of last year.

Amid a drop in juvenile crime that parallels a decline in overall U.S. crime rates over the past two decades, Congress has approved far less money for juvenile justice in recent years.

Including several programs beyond the Title II allocations involved in the current discussion, the total juvenile justice aid figure in the Justice Department budget dropped 54 percent between federal fiscal years 2002 and 2015, from about $547 million to $251 million.

The new federal juvenile justice law includes provisions on a wide variety of subjects, including encouraging authorities to be more vigilant in screening children who may have been sexually trafficked or who suffer from mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse, reported the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

A primary reason that the bill’s passage was held up for so long was that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) opposed a provision that would limit judges’ authority to lock up young offenders for “status offenses,” crimes like truancy or running away that would not be crimes for adults but affect only juvenile suspects.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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