Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. In fact, there are two: Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. And they've just delivered a big holiday present early this year to the juvenile justice field: the long-awaited update and reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).
For the past 40 years, the JJDPA has set federal standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system and provided critical federal funding to assist states in meeting these standards. Efforts to remove youth from adult jails and halt the detention of status offenders were initiated under the JJDPA, and have been very successful.
This reauthorization bill is sorely needed in order to overhaul the law to ensure it meets the most pressing issues in juvenile justice right now, such as reducing racial and ethnic disparities, keeping kids out of adult court and giving states incentives to stop using incarceration and implement effective alternatives to incarceration.
The Grassley/Whitehouse Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization of 2014 would address many of the key issues in juvenile justice today, including:
- Phasing out any exceptions that would allow the detention of status offenders, i.e. youth who have not been charged with a crime
- Substantially reducing the placement of youth in adult jails
- Dramatically decreasing racial and ethnic disparities
- Giving states incentives to rely less on incarceration
- Promoting the use of alternatives to incarceration and
- Improving conditions and educational services for incarcerated youth.
This bill is a substantial improvement over current law. Numerous organizations and individuals all over the country are supporting it. While we don't expect any more movement on this bill this session, we hope it will be one of the first agenda items for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in the new session. In the meantime, as we make the rounds of holiday events and gatherings we'll have something to celebrate.
And once the bells ring in the new year, we'll roll up our sleeves (again) and get to work with Sen. Grassley, who will take over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Whitehouse to ensure this bill is reintroduced early in the new congressional session and is passed by Congress.
We hope to realize our vision, not just of candy canes and sugar plums, but of a newly updated JJDPA signed by the president by this time next year.
Jill Ward, former co-chair of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, is a federal policy consultant for the Campaign for Youth Justice. Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ.