OP-ED: Why the JJDPA Still Matters

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Marie WilliamsWhen first enacted in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) revolutionized juvenile justice practice across the United States.

While not commonly discussed as such, the JJDPA is, at its core, reform legislation. By establishing core protections for young people who come into conflict with the law (and incentives for states to adopt those protections), it codified at the federal level several truths that practitioners and advocates on the state level had already accepted as self-evident.

The first truth is that young people are different from adults. The second is that an effective justice system is one that not only protects society from those young people who do harm, but also protects from harm young people in its custody. The third is that disparate treatment of young people across the United States who come into contact with the juvenile justice system according to mere geography is untenable, and only federal standards can begin to address that disparity.

Over time, as the field of juvenile justice matured, so too did the Act. Only the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO) and sight-and-sound core protections were part of the original legislation in 1974. The jail removal protection was added in 1980 in response to congressional findings about the negative effects of placing youth in adult lockups and jails. In 1992, the disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) core protection became part of the JJDPA when additional research demonstrated that disparities existed not only according to geography, but according to race and ethnicity as well.

Of course, later research demonstrated that disproportionality existed not only in confinement, but at several other contact points in the system. The DMC core protection came to stand for disproportionate minority contact. In each instance, the Act retained its reform focus and was resilient enough to accommodate new research and findings from the field.

The JJDPA today is lagging behind. Having last been reauthorized in 2002, it fails to reflect many exciting new developments in the field, including but not limited to: new adolescent brain science research (that establishes definitively that youth are different from adults), the cost-effectiveness and improved outcomes from treatment-focused, community-based approaches; the efficacy of violence prevention and treatment programs; and the ways in which a system designed to address males in a majority white society is failing to meet the needs of minorities and girls.

Further, the JJDPA, having once been perceived as providing core “protections,” is now more commonly thought of as prescribing core “requirements.” This distinction is more than one of language — it indicates a slow shift of perception: The Act now constrains and requires rather than supports and facilitates change efforts aimed at protecting young people in the juvenile justice system.

The failure to reauthorize the JJDPA to incorporate new developments in the field only further bolsters this perception and creates a disincentive to enact bold new reform efforts supported with public dollars.

Reauthorization of the JJDPA that incorporates the best practices, policies and new knowledge from the field gives policymakers at the state level the cover they need to champion investments of public dollars in effective juvenile justice practices.

This is essential since a majority of funding for juvenile justice comes from state, rather than federal, coffers. As private foundations turn their focus and their funding to other social issues, the need for public investment could not be greater. A statute informed by what we now know to be effective will ensure that juvenile justice practice does not lose the significant ground gained since 1974. Congress should act soon to reauthorize.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

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