After seven straight years of near inaction by Congress, and a drastic decline in funding since 2002, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquncy Prevention Act (JJDPA) desperately needs to be reauthorizerd and effectively funded. The JJDPA is the single most important piece of federal legislation affecting youth in juvenile justice systems across the country. It is the primary vehicle through which the U.S. government sets standards for state and local juvenile justice systems, and it provides direct funding for states, research, training and technical assistance and evaluation.
Since the original enactment of the JJDPA in September 1974, its periodic reauthorizations have been very contentious, as the Act’s opponents have sought to weaken its protections for youth, reduce prevention resources and encourage the transfer of youth to the adult criminal justice system.
Despite a decline in juvenile offenses over the past decade, the population of youth confined in pre-trial secure detention has steadily grown. On an average day, more than 27,000 youngsters are estimated to reside in locked detention centers — a number that has grown 72 percent since the early 1990s. Moreover, jursidictions continue to imprison youth in spite of research demonstrating that juvenile detention has critical, long-lasting consequences for court-involved juveniles. Projects such as the 22-year-old Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation work to demonstrate that communities can safely reduce their reliance on secure detention of young people.
In 1974, when the JJDPA was enacted, an estimated 500,000 kids were housed in adult jails and prisons each year, very often for status or very minor offenses – and subject to everything from verbal abuse to physical and sexual assault.
Locking up youngsters 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, unnecessarily exposes them to the negative influences and social stigmatization of incarceration. These young people – who frequently are girls – often have unmet mental health or education needs and are better served by the appropriate human services agency, rather than the justice system.
Without JJDPA there would be no national acknowledgement of disparate treatment of youth of color in the system. This, despite the fact that we know youth of color are much more likely than white youth to be arrested, detained, and incarcerated for similar offenses.
Without JJDPA there would be no Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). OJJDP has accomplished much, and lately it has worked to prevent gang involvement, girls’ delinquency and underage drinking. It assists victims of child abduction and commercial sexual exploitation. OJJDP also supports mentoring, tribal youth programs and services, AMBER Alert and community- and faith-based initiatives.
The Act created this office to help states enact system change, and without it no federal funding for the states would be available to advance juvenile justice reforms. The only federal agency focused on juvenile justice would not exist. There would be no federal technical assistance, federal research and evaluation or national standards.
Fortunately, leaders in the juvenile and criminal justice field recognized the need for national leadership and worked with Congress and the Ford Administration in 1974 to pass the bipartisan law we have today. Tens of thousands fewer children are being held in adult jails, status offenders are far less likely to end up in secure detention, states are working to address racial and ethnic disparities in their systems and there is some – though declining – federal support for all these efforts.
If the JJDPA is implemented for another five years, it will embrace the recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences report “Reforming Juvenile Justice,” the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign. No youth will be in an adult jail or prison anywhere in the United States. No runaways or truants will be locked up. Racial and ethnic disparities will decline. A vibrant and robust OJJDP wll engage with directly impacted youth, their parents and families, led by a formerly incarcerated youth. Robust funding will be provided to states and localities to reduce detention, end the use of the training school approach and create a rich array of community-based alternatives to incarceration and other supports for youth.
There should really be no dispute over the many social advantages from reauthorizing and robustly funding JJDPA.