Forty years after its birth, the landmark federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act could be reauthorized by Congress this year.
Reauthorization can hardly come soon enough for juvenile justice advocates: The JJDPA, the main federal juvenile justice law, is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, but has not been since 2002. Then, few substantive changes were made. It has not undergone major amendment in nearly two decades.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., plans to introduce a bill later this year that would reauthorize and strengthen the JJDPA, an aide told JJIE in an e-mail.
“Senator Whitehouse is indeed continuing to work on legislation to reauthorize the JJDPA, taking into consideration the testimony he heard at a field hearing he held [in Rhode Island] on the issue in June,” said the aide, Seth Larson.
With possible reauthorization, juvenile justice advocates are pushing for the strengthening of key provisions of the legislation known as “core requirements,” which link federal funding to jurisdictions’ compliance.
The 1974 JJDPA established the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which has suffered sharp cutbacks in spending, frequent changes in leadership and waning influence in recent years.
Even so, the passage of the law had a profound impact.
“The JJDPA was a critically important federal statute because it brought together all of the federal strands working on aspects of juvenile justice and put them into a funding statute that allowed the federal government to directly support reforms in the states,” said Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Children's Law and Policy.
Today, while states provide the bulk of funding for juvenile justice, OJJDP helps set the agenda through grant-making, technical assistance and training and through its bully pulpit as part of the U.S. Justice Department.
The JJDPA first established two core requirements (sometimes referred to as “core protections”):
- separation of juveniles from adult inmates when the juveniles are held temporarily in secure adult facilities,
- the deinstitutionalization of “status offenders,” or those who commit offenses that wouldn’t be crimes for adults (like truancy, running away from home or alcohol possession).
The number of status offenders detained had declined markedly after the JJDPA tied the core requirements to federal funding.
But in 1980, the act was amended to include an exception allowing judges to confine a youth for a status offense if the youth had violated a valid court order not to repeat the offense.
Today, more than half of U.S. states continue to allow use of the valid court order exception to detain youths charged with status offenses. OJJDP has reported about 12,000 annual uses of the exception nationwide.
Juvenile justice advocates hope to ban that exception.
“It’s truly an exception that you can drive a truck through,” Soler said.
Two other core requirements were added to the JJDPA years after its passage:
One, added in 1980, stipulates that jurisdictions limit placement of juveniles in adult facilities before their release or transportation to a juvenile facility.
The other, added in 1992, stated that jurisdictions must address “disproportionate minority confinement.” The latter was eventually amended to become “disproportionate minority contact” with the juvenile justice system.
Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, which strives to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system, called the core requirements the “bare minimum of what we expect every state juvenile justice system to address.”
“You need to be addressing these four requirements, and if you’re not, you are really doing harm to [juveniles] in the system,” Mistrett said.
Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in an e-mail to JJIE Wednesday that the JJDPA was “groundbreaking in its day and transformed some fundamentally flawed aspects of juvenile justice (like locking up kids with adults).”
"But," Balis added, "while core mandates should certainly be sustained, federal legislation has the potential to incorporate and reinforce the major breakthroughs and trends of the past 20 years, including the recommendations that have emerged from the studies by the National Academy of Sciences to align our juvenile justice systems with what the research tells us about adolescent development. Forty-year-old policies won't suffice to advance the field."
A 2012 report by the NAS’ National Research Council titled “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach” highlighted recent research showing adolescents are prone to risk taking and “novelty-seeking” behavior like alcohol and drug use and reckless driving; very susceptible to peer pressure; apt to indulge immediate gratification; and less likely than adults to consider long-term consequences of their behavior.
“A developmental approach to juvenile justice,” the report stated, “recognizes that illegal acts committed by adolescents occur at a time of life when individuals are more likely to exercise poor judgment, take risks, and pursue thrills and excitement.”
The report recommended that a “developmental approach” respond to such acts with treatment and services that enable youths to focus on “repairing the social injury or damage” caused by their behavior while making them understand how it has affected others and having them take responsibility for the behavior.
For most young offenders, the report found, well-designed, community-based programs are more likely than confinement to reduce recidivism and foster healthy social and moral development.
Act 4 Juvenile Justice seeks to extend the core requirements on jail removal and separation of juveniles from adult inmates to all youth under 18 being held pre-trial, whether they’re charged in juvenile or adult court. The coalition, which includes juvenile justice, child welfare and youth development organizations, is also pressing for increased funding for juvenile justice programs and services.