OP-ED: JJDPA: Setting National Standards for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

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UntitledAlmost 40 years ago, Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), the bedrock federal juvenile justice law that sets national standards for youth in the system. The law prohibits states from incarcerating youth in adult jails with limited exception, requires states to deinstutionalize status offenders and establishes that racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system should be eliminated. The standards set forth in the JJDPA are critical to ensuring a juvenile justice system that promotes safety and better outcomes for youth.

According to a publication of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the federal agency in charge of implementation of the JJDPA, the original intent of the JJDPA was to “protect juveniles from abuse at the hands of adult prisoners, and to insure that youths would receive solicitous care consistent with the principles of the juvenile justice system.” It became clear that the original language of the law that required only “sight and sound” separation of youth and adults was creating a more perilous situation for many youth: to accommodate the sight and sound requirement, many jurisdictions were placing youth in solitary confinement, a severe punishment used infrequently for adult prisoners.

Congress amended the JJDPA five years later in 1980, codifying into law the actual physical separation of adult and juvenile inmates, along with sight and sound separation. The impact of this specific provision of the JJDPA cannot be understated. According to the advocacy group the Campaign for Youth Justice, youth incarcerated in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. The same report cites a Department of Justice study that found that in 2005, 21 percent of the victims of inmate-to-inmate sexual abuse in adult jails were under the age of 18, despite the fact that youth comprise less than 1 percent of the adult jail population. The JJDPA’s core protections and standards can help keep more youth safe from the dangers of being incarcerated with adults.

In 1975, four years before the jail removal provision of the JJDPA was enacted, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), which provides community-based programs to youth in the juvenile justice system, was founded specifically to remove youth from the adult prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Today, with the jail removal provision of the JJDPA well-established law, YAP and other community-based organizations frequently provide jurisdictions with alternatives to detention and incarceration for youth. These programs help states achieve compliance with the JJDPA’s core protection that detained or incarcerated youth be separated from adults.

Likewise, the core protection in the JJDPA that mandates the deinstitutionalization of status offenders -- youth whose actions would not be considered crimes if they were adults -- means that kids accused of behaviors associated with adolescence, like truancy and violating curfews, can get the help they need in their communities rather than spending days or months incarcerated.

While truancy and curfew violations may be uniquely adolescent behaviors, they can be precursors of further disconnection that can lead to juvenile justice or criminal justice system involvement. The underlying causes of these behaviors may be complex but incarcerating youth is not the solution. The JJDPA deinstitutionalization of status offenders mandate gives states a financial incentive to address truancy without incarcerating youth.

In fact, the JJDPA explicitly declares that states should develop community-based programs to work directly with youth and their families so that youth can stay safely in their homes. OJJDP has also identified direct service provision as one way to comply with the deinstitutionalization mandate. As a direct service provider of community-based programs for youth in the juvenile justice system, we see the benefit of this core protection every day.

In Pittsburgh, for example, YAP runs a successful Wraparound/Advocacy truancy program that works to meet the unique needs of both the youth and their family to improve their success in school and prevent entry into the juvenile justice system. All of the 143 youth in YAP’s Pittsburgh truancy program are provided with services in their communities and 85 percent now attend school 3-5 days a week with the support they and their families need. Without the core JJDPA protection that mandates deinstitutionalization of status offenders, youth like those in this program could be subject to incarceration for truancy all across the country.

The JJDPA’s protections help to reduce the number of youth incarcerated for status offenses and those incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. It has kept youth safe and set standards for how vulnerable youth should be treated in the juvenile justice system. The JJDPA has also created opportunities to support youth at-risk of system involvement and those in the juvenile justice system through community-based programs in their own neighborhoods. Because of the JJDPA states are empowered to act in the best interest of kids at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system and those already in it. There’s no question that the JJDPA matters.

This is part of the ACT4JJ Campaign's JJDPA Matters Blog Project, a 16-week series that launched Sept. 10, 2013. You can find the full series at the JJDPA Matters Action Center.

Shaena Fazal, Esq. is the National Policy Director at Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). YAP is a national non-profit organization committed to providing cost-effective, community-based alternatives for youth and families in the juvenile justice, child welfare and behavioral health systems through direct service, advocacy and policy change. YAP was founded in 1975 and serves 12,000 families a year in 17 states.

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