WASHINGTON — State officials, advocates and researchers are urging federal officials to tread carefully as they consider changes to how states demonstrate they are protecting juveniles in custody.
They say that if the rules become too strict, cash-strapped states that find themselves out of compliance could abandon the federal program designed to help juveniles entirely.
“This would inevitably lead to wider variances between and within states in terms of the efficacy, equity and efficiency of juvenile justice systems; and would ultimately lead to poorer outcomes for youth,” said the Coalition of Juvenile Justice (CJJ), a trade group that represents juvenile justice state advisory groups, in a comment letter responding to proposed changes.
The proposal would change how states meet the core requirements of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, regulations that haven’t been updated since the mid-1990s. The JJDPA is the key federal law that sets standards for juvenile justice that states must follow in order to receive federal grants.
Specifically, states would have to clear new formula-based thresholds to show they keep juveniles out of adult facilities; ensure that when juveniles must be in such facilities, they are separated from adult inmates; and do not lock up status offenders.
In addition, the proposal calls for states to do more to root out racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, known as disproportionate minority contact under the law.
Under the new rules, 48 states would be out of compliance with at least one of the three formula-based requirements, according to OJP. States are already dealing with a sharp decrease in federal funding for juvenile justice; add the costs of compliance and they may find it is no longer worth participating in JJDPA, the commenters said.
“While the push to hold states to an even higher standard is a worthy goal, the bar cannot be so divorced from practice that it has the unintended consequence of driving states out of the program and putting more children and youth at risk,” said the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition in another representative comment letter. The coalition represents nearly 300 youth- and family-serving social justice, law enforcement, corrections and faith-based groups.
In the comments, one group had a different opinion on the burden to states of increased compliance costs coupled with decreased funding. Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit that seeks to improve interactions between police and youth, said the proposal is an appropriate floor for state compliance, especially when it comes to reducing disproportionate minority contact.
“The federal government should not succumb to the perceived threat that states will crumble under the weight of regulations that simply ensure that the youth for whom they are responsible are treated fairly,” the group wrote.
In their comments, state officials and organizations delved into the specifics of how the proposal would affect the states. Among their concerns are:
- the scope of the baseline data used to develop the compliance thresholds;
- how much flexibility states have to respond before being declared out of compliance;
- whether OJJDP technical assistance will be sufficient to help states improve; and
- the timeline for implementation.
The next step in the rulemaking process is for federal officials to review the comments and decide if and how to modify the original proposal before putting out a final regulation.