OP-ED: President’s Budget Includes Crucial Funding for Juvenile Justice


LRyanThis year, President Barack Obama's budget reflects more of the juvenile justice field's priorities than ever before. These funding proposals will be crucial in advancing juvenile justice reforms in a number of ways.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has provided critical federal funding for nearly 40 years, under the Title II formula grant funds, to states to comply with a set of minimum requirements designed to protect children and meet their unique needs. The president’s budget includes $70 million under Title II for states to utilize in keeping status offenders from being detained, removing children from adult jails and lock ups, and reducing the disparate treatment of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

The “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO provision,” applies to young people whose actions would not be considered offenses at the age of majority, such as skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol.

The DSO provision was designed to ensure that these youth, who often have unmet mental health or education needs, receive help from the appropriate human services agency rather than the justice system.

The JJDPA’s Jail Removal provision has ensured funding to every state to help them keep children adjudicated in the juvenile system out of adult jails and lockups. When this provision was adopted in 1980, there were an estimated 300,000 children in adult jails and lock ups annually throughout the country. Since then, this core protection has effectively stopped the placement of hundreds of thousands of children in facilities every year.

And the JJDPA’s “Disproportionate Minority Contact” (DMC) provision requires states to address the disproportionate confinement of youth of color at key points in the juvenile justice system. For example, African-American youth make up only 17 percent of the nation’s total youth population, but African-American youth constitute 30 percent of the youth arrested nationwide and 62 percent of all youth in the adult criminal justice system. Latino and Native American youth experience similar unfairness within the juvenile justice system. Latino children represent 23 percent of all children under 18 but are 40 percent more likely than white youth to be admitted to adult prison. Native American youth are 50 percent more likely than white youth to receive out-of-home placement or to be placed in the adult system.

In addition to using federal funds to meet the core requirements of the JJDPA, states (such as Maryland and Virginia) have used Title II formula funds to reduce the inappropriate use of detention by creating alternatives to detention. Also Title II funds are used in some states to keep youth out of the system through diversion programs such as one in Vermont where almost all 16- and 17-year-olds years are prosecuted in adult criminal court.

The president’s budget also includes resources for the first time ever to assist jurisdictions in reducing the use of incarceration.

While youth incarceration is at a 40-year low, according to a recently released report, “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States”, issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, much more needs to be done to reduce the wasteful, dangerous and inappropriate incarceration of youth in the justice system. These funds can serve as a catalyst to accelerate substantial reductions in youth incarceration, including eliminating the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons.

And the president’s budget proposes some funding for grants to address the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system. While this is a modest step, it provides a hook by which to advance best practices, such as those featured in the “Improving the Justice System for Girls” report.

With this budget, the Obama administration recognizes that targeted federal investments in state and local juvenile justice programs can improve outcomes for youth. Our challenge will be to ensure that Congress enacts it.

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Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan brings more than two decades of experience to the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization she founded that is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating children in the adult criminal justice system.