OP-ED: JJDPA Reauthorization’s Time Has (Finally!) Come

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JillWardThe long wait may finally be over. Calling it the “most important piece of federal legislation affecting juvenile justice across the country,” U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) announced his intention today to introduce bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) “very soon.” Highlighting the critical role the JJDPA has played in supporting state systems and the upcoming 40th anniversary of its passage into law, Whitehouse set a positive tone for the first public hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the JJDPA since 2007 at Tides Family Services in Pawtucket, RI.

The first panel of the morning featured Robert Listenbee, administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) who underscored the important leadership role OJJDP has in supporting juvenile justice policies and practices in the states that protect children from harm, address the needs of youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system and ensure public safety.  Listenbee made a strong statement in support of the reauthorization of the JJDPA and the importance of the law’s four core protections.

The audience next heard from Haiganush Bedrosian, chief judge of the Rhode Island Family Court, who highlighted the importance of keeping status offenders and other delinquent youth connected to educational opportunities. The Judge pointed to statistics that show that youth who receive their high school diplomas are more likely to be employed and less likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. Bedrosian mentioned programs like Rhode Island Family Court’s truancy calendars, which ensure truant children attend school and are connected with adults in the school to help keep them on track, and embrace the federal JJDPA core protection of deinstitutionalizing status offenders.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, talked about the importance of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) program in substantially reducing the inappropriate use of detention in the state. She cited alarming statistics that show the cost of incarcerating a young person in Rhode Island’s Training School is an estimated $106,000, while a community-based alternative that more adequately addresses the needs of that same youth is a fraction of the cost and achieves better results. Elizabeth also highlighted the important federal-state partnership the JJDPA provides in helping states make the reforms needed to better serve kids and the community.

While all the testimony was valuable, the most compelling story of the morning came from Osbert Duoa, a young man who has benefitted from Tides Family Services, a community-based alternative to incarceration program, and now serves as a mentor to other young people. He talked about getting into trouble at age 14 and spending seven months in the Rhode Island Training School. Osbert described how important the Tides Center was upon his release in connecting him to positive people who took the time to get to know him, understand what he needed and help him stay on track to graduate high school and get a job.

The hearing concluded with the senator reiterating his hope that a bipartisan bill would be introduced shortly and that it would move swiftly through the Senate. For those of us who worked on the last reauthorization more than a decade ago and have been working to reaffirm and strengthen the law’s core protections in recent years, we share your hope and stand ready to help.

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.

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