New ‘Ban the Box’ Bill Would Improve Access to Federal Jobs for Youth With Records

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers wants to ease the job application process for people with criminal histories.

The Fair Chance To Compete for Jobs Act of 2015 would prohibit federal agencies and contractors from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is received.

The goal is to make sure employers don’t pass over qualified candidates because of the stigma of a past conviction.

“This commonsense legislation will give those leaving the criminal justice system a fair chance to turn their lives around, and to contribute to our economy in a meaningful way,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in a news release. Cummings is a lead sponsor of the legislation introduced Thursday with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

hub_arrow_2-01Laws that affect when an employer can ask questions about an applicant’s criminal history are commonly referred to as “ban the box” provisions.

Ban-the-box legislation matters for children and teenagers who are tried in criminal court and are subject to all the consequences any adult faces, such as limits on access to public housing or student loans, depending on their crime.

The legislation can also affect young people who are found delinquent in juvenile court, depending on where they live or how the question on a form is asked, said Riya Shah, a supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm.

[Related: Georgia First Southern State to ‘Ban the Box’ for Government Jobs]

Some states consider a finding of delinquency the same as a finding of guilty. Or, if an employer asks, “Have you ever been arrested,” an applicant may have to answer yes even though he or she was never charged or found guilty or delinquent.

The legislation is a significant step forward for advocates of ban the box reforms, Shah said.

“It’s a big statement from the federal government acknowledging that people have the capacity to reform,” she said.

More than 100 cities and counties and 18 states have “ban the box” provisions on the books, according to the National Employment Law Project, a supporter of the proposed legislation.  Some states and municipalities also have extended the ban to private employers.

Shah said successful ban the box legislation isn’t the final word on the problems job applicants can face when asked about their arrest or criminal history. Those disclosures can be difficult even when they come further along in the hiring process, she said.

“You may not have to check the box but you may have to have the conversation at a later time,” she said.

The proposed Fair Chance Act includes exceptions for positions related to law enforcement and national security, those that require access to classified information and those that legally require access to an applicant’s criminal history.

The legislation also would require a federal report on employment statistics of formerly incarcerated people.

Co-sponsors of the bill are Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.; Cedric Richmond, D-La.; John Conyers, D-Mich., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.

The lawmakers said as many as 70 million people with criminal histories may face barriers to employment.

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Increase in Homicides Unlikely to Derail Juvenile Justice Reforms, Observers Say

Police lightsWASHINGTON — An increase in homicides in major cities across the country this year is unlikely to hamper juvenile justice reform efforts, say advocates and analysts.

As cities grapple with the problem, observers say they have not seen teenagers scapegoated or a significant push for tough-on-crime policies that run counter to reforms that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation.

“There hasn’t been a vilification of young people,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Analysts cautioned the causes of the homicide spike and its longevity are not yet known.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on what we’re seeing right now,” said Sam Bieler, a research associate in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute.

Nationwide, crime in the nation is on the decline, including violent crime among juveniles. The federal juvenile violent crime index arrest rate in 2012 was as low as it has been since at least 1980.

In the past, juveniles have sometimes been front and center in debates on crime, during both real and perceived spikes in violence.

[Related: At Least 28,000 Children and Teens Were Killed by Guns over an 11-Year-Period]

In some cases, there’s a focus on juveniles because of a broad trend, such as the rise in violent crime during the 1980s and early 1990s that fueled policy changes reformers are still trying to reverse. Other times, a teenager commits a shocking crime that is sensationalized.

“Generally, public reaction to violence is more in reaction to high-profile incidents than statistics. People don’t know them, or even believe them if they do,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

When the public does become more aware of an increase in violence, there is a tendency to overestimate the role of teenagers, including by politicians, he said.

Krisberg doesn’t see that dynamic in the current conversation about crime. He also doesn’t anticipate a backlash against juvenile justice reforms, because so many stakeholders agree change is necessary.

“The messages, the accurate, data-driven messages, have gone out to a lot of people in a lot of places,” he said.

Officials are increasingly aware that reform can save money and help juveniles, most of whom do not commit violent offenses, said Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. She agreed they’re unlikely to suddenly swing in the opposite direction.

“I would hope that we are now in a place as a country where the people making the laws realize that one headline shouldn’t change how we treat kids,” she said.

When officials don’t have a clear explanation for an increase in crime but still need to respond to the needs of their community, their position can fuel speculation, Bieler said.

“When we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at, you see people swinging blindly to see if they can find the response,” he said.

It’s important to wait for data that can show what’s really happening, Bieler said. But waiting to come to a firm conclusion about a crime increase doesn’t mean doing nothing in the meantime, he said.

Communities need help dealing with the trauma of violence, and people who are affected by violence can offer valuable perspectives about what’s going on around them, he said.

“You should have young adults at the table, you should have juveniles at the table. They are going to have a lot of insights,” Bieler said.

Schindler, of the Justice Policy Institute, said the question of how officials are responding to the homicide increases points to the issue of how advocates can prepare for a high-profile case or crime wave that challenges reforms.

Advocates should be ready to highlight what works well and why, he said.

“When there is a bad case, which inevitably there will be, we don’t want the backlash. We want a balanced narrative,” he said.

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Federal Juvenile Justice Committee Advises More Funding for States

WASHINGTON — The federal committee of state stakeholders that advises the administration on juvenile justice matters supports updates to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act — and more money to implement changes.

The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice on Monday voted 8-2 for a slate of recommendations related to the reauthorization of the JJDPA, the law that sets standards for juvenile justice programs.

States must comply with the law to receive funding for their programs. Legislation that would update the law has cleared a Senate committee and is expected to reach the Senate floor this fall.

The committee’s recommendations support many of those updates, such as increased data collection and reporting requirements, as long as additional funding is provided.

The panel also recommended the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention should only consider punitive funding reductions as a last resort if a state is not in compliance with the JJDPA.

[Related: JJDPA Could Clear Way for Other Juvenile Justice Reforms]

The committee has said previously that the law needs to be reauthorized and get more funding, but the new slate of recommendations is more specific.

“We’ve seen some movement, we’re hopeful for movement, so it seemed like the right time to weigh in,” said Jim Moeser, vice chair of the committee and deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, after the meeting.

Data collection and improved accountability are critical, but states vary widely in how prepared they are to collect and report new measures, he said.

“The reality is far from where we need to be, and the expense is probably more than people realize,” he said.

The committee also supported:

  • phasing out the “valid court order” exception that allows children who commit status offenses — such as truancy or curfew violations — to be detained;
  • accountability measures for reducing ethnic and racial disparities;
  • new limits to keep youth under age 18 out of adult confinement facilities, and
  • an increase in federal funding for juvenile justice programs.

Committee member George Timberlake, a retired chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Illinois and chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, said during debate on the recommendations that they strike the right balance between encouraging compliance and the need for adequate funding.

“Having been there and our state having been on the grill, I suggest these are reasonable responses,” he said.

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JJDPA Could Clear Way for Other Juvenile Justice Reforms

If the Senate passes the JJDP Reauthorization Act (S 1169), other juvenile justice legislation could gather momentum in JJDPA’s wake.
If the Senate passes the reauthorization of the JJDPA, other juvenile justice legislation could gather momentum in its wake.

WASHINGTON — When Congress returns from summer recess early next month, juvenile justice stakeholders will be watching to see what happens to a bill that would update core federal standards for the field.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (S 1169) would make the first changes to the law since 2002 and is a top priority in the juvenile justice world. It cleared a key Senate committee in July and is headed to the Senate floor.

If the Senate passes the bill, other juvenile justice legislation could gather momentum in JJDPA’s wake, said Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Such reform-oriented legislation introduced in late July and August include bills that deal with solitary confinement, shackling, alternatives to incarceration and record expungement.

Smoot said juvenile justice reforms are a natural fit within broader bipartisan negotiations to reform the criminal justice system.

“Juvenile justice reform really is the first line in those criminal justice efforts,” she said.

Recent legislation

The bills introduced this summer include the MERCY Act (S 1965), which would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system or held in pretrial facilities and juvenile detention facilities.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the bipartisan legislation with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

“Not only is solitary confinement cruel and demeaning, it’s a violation of one’s human dignity. When imposed on adolescents, it can cause serious long-term psychological and physical harm,” Booker said in a statement.

[Related: House Bill Would Reauthorize the JJDPA]

The bill’s provisions are very similar to language included in the REDEEM Act (S 675/HR 1672), a broader Senate bill dealing with both the juvenile and criminal justice systems that Booker and Paul reintroduced earlier this year.

As a standalone bill, the MERCY Act could have a smoother path through Congress.

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., also has introduced standalone legislation prohibiting solitary confinement (HR 2823).

In the House, top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee released a package of juvenile justice reforms in July.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., ranking member of the committee, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, ranking member of the crime subcommittee, introduced:

  • The RAISE Act (HR 3158), which includes alternatives to incarceration and sentencing reforms;
  • The Fair Chance for Youth Act (HR 3156), which allows formerly incarcerated youth to request expungement of certain federal records; and
  • The Effective and Humane Treatment of Youth Act (Kalief’s Law) (HR 3155), which aims to ensure young people’s right to a speedy trial and ban shackling and solitary.

Jackson Lee said in a statement that “meaningful criminal justice reform must look at all the ways the system touches the lives of our young people, recognize that they are different, and take steps to treat them appropriately and humanely.”

The leadership of the House Judiciary Committee said in early August that it would spend the recess crafting a bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.

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Cluster of “Raise the Age” Reforms Could Signal Long-Term Trend

JJGPS StateScan report
Click to read the full report.

The most telling number in a new report on how states decide who is a juvenile and who is an adult in the justice system isn’t necessarily 18 or even 17 or 16.

Instead, consider the number four.

That’s the number of states that have implemented “raise the age” reforms based on the upper age boundary of juvenile jurisdiction since 2009, according to the report from the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The boundary determines which juveniles who accused of an offense are treated as an adult. In most states, it’s 17, which means young people are juveniles until they turn 18. This is separate from transfer laws that move a juvenile to adult court for felonies or other serious crimes.

Changes in four states may not sound like much, but in the more than three decades before that, only one state, Alabama, raised the upper boundary. (Unless you count Rhode Island, which both lowered and raised its age limit from 17 to 16 and back again in one tumultuous year.)

That cluster of changes since 2009 is important because states historically haven’t done much to the upper age limit, said Melissa Sickmund, director of the center.

“It’s not something that states change all the time. They tend to leave it be,” she said. “The fact that states are changing is huge.”

hub_arrow_2-01The changes mean more young offenders remain in the juvenile system with access to rehabilitative program and treatment. They also avoid the collateral consequences of the adult system when they are released, such as no access to student loans or limits on where they can be employed.

Only nine states set an upper age boundary of 15 or 16 years old, compared with 17 in all the others. That means a dwindling number of states have yet to enact changes that keep young offenders in the juvenile system until they are 18.

Sickmund said the spate of changes is a development that could signal a shift from asking who’s next to raise the age to who’s going to be last.

“Are we going to get to a place in the not too distant future where every state considers that 18th birthday the borderline? That will be unique in our history,” she said.

Opponents of raise the age policies cite potential costs or say the changes would mean juveniles face punishments that are too lenient for their crimes.

Since 1975, eight states have changed the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction, according to the report.

Four states have raised the age, two have lowered it and two have done both. Like Rhode Island, New Hampshire lowered the age and then raised it again, though the changes came nearly two decades apart.

Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are the four states that have implemented upper age boundary changes since 2009.

The report, “U.S. Age Boundaries of Delinquency” by Angel Zang, tracks the age boundaries that determine who is a juvenile in the states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.

Extended age boundaries range from ages 18 to 24, with two states setting no limit. The extended boundaries allow a juvenile court to keep jurisdiction over an individual, often so a judge can monitor his or her progress.

The center is the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Judges Weigh In Against Shackling of Youth in Courtrooms

handcuffs shacklingA national association of judges wants to stop the indiscriminate shackling of youth in juvenile court.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges released a resolution Monday that supports a policy against shackling children, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis.

“I cannot think of a more fundamental right of due process and basic human dignity than for a child to be able to face a juvenile court judge without shackles unless there is a true safety concern for the child or participants in court,” said Darlene Byrne, the group’s president, in a statement.

The group is the latest to oppose the policy, citing concerns for children’s health and development, as well as their due process rights. The policy statements have rolled in along with a growing momentum to create state laws against the shackling of juveniles.

David Shapiro, manager of the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling
David Shapiro, manager of the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling

David Shapiro, manager of the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling, housed at the National Juvenile Defender Center, said the group’s position is a huge win.

“We hear from judges that they don’t think they are the ones who are in charge of their own courtrooms, and this makes it clear that they are,” he said.

The support of judges is also important as reformers make their case to limit shackling in the states, Shapiro said.

Twenty-one states have a law, court rule, court opinion or statewide policy that limits the shackling of juveniles in the courtroom at some stage of court proceedings. The other 29 have no written guidance, nor does the federal government.

Shapiro said the resolution and the push for legislation in the states without guidance wouldn’t prevent the use of shackles if a child posed a safety risk.

[Related: Opinion — Indiscriminate Shackling of Children in Juvenile Court Should End]

“All we’re saying is that judges should have the discretion and that it should be the presumption because it is harmful to children,” he said.

Crystal Duarte, program director for coordinated policy and practice at the National Council, said the resolution builds on the group’s guidelines from 2005 that call for a continuum of effective and least intrusive responses in juvenile justice.

As reform efforts have moved across the country, the group wanted to participate.

“There is a lot of attention nationally and we wanted judges to have a voice in that,” she said.

hub_arrow_2-01The resolution also calls on judges to use their leadership positions to convene stakeholders around the issue of shackling and for the regular review of policies related to shackling.

Duarte said that in some places, older policies against shackling slowly unraveled without much fanfare, leaving judges and others to think shackling was the way things had always been. Regular reviews should help keep anti-shackling policies in place, she said.

“We don’t want them to be undone,” she said.

The association represents 1,600 members and distributes its policy statements to many more.

Groups including the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also have issued policies against shackling.

Opponents of the practice argue shackling humiliates children, potentially disrupting their development; interferes with their right to effective counsel and makes children less likely to see the judicial system as fair.

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Report: Certainty, Not Severity, Key in Deterring Juvenile Crime

Angry teenWASHINGTON — Researchers first reported several years ago that a major longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders showed the severity of their punishments had little effect on their recidivism rates.

Digging into the data, the researchers also found that teenagers who commit serious crimes do respond to the threat or risk of sanctions, though not in a one-size-fits-all way.

OJJDP report
Click to read the full report “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents”

In a new report released by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, researchers say the findings point to the need to devote resources to change risk perceptions, rather than prisons.

The report, “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents,” is one of several OJJDP bulletins based on research from “Pathways to Desistance,” the study that followed more than 1,300 young offenders for seven years after their court involvement.

The resulting research has found no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests due to more severe punishment, such as correctional placement versus probation or longer periods of institutional placement, the researchers said. But it did find that the certainty of punishment can play a role in deterring future crimes.

Among adolescents who commit serious offenses, “recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested,” the report said.

Edward Mulvey, the principal investigator on the Pathways study, said the idea that adolescents respond to the certainty of punishment, not severity, has found an audience with some policymakers. They are asking whether states should have to justify why the criminal justice system should hold an adolescent offender for a long time.

“It’s switching the presumption that kids should be in treatment for ‘as long as it takes,’” he said.

[Related: Rethinking Juvenile Detention: Better Outcomes With Fewer Lockups]

The new bulletin looks at how young offenders evaluate the risks of crime, which has a deterrence effect. Young people slightly increased their risk perceptions in response to an arrest, it found. The researchers said, though, there is no standard response to the certainty of punishment because risk perceptions vary based on individuals’ prior experiences or history of offenses and other factors.

Findings from the “Pathways” study have been important in shaping reformers’ policy agendas, said Sarah Bryer, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, especially because the study focused on young people, rather than extrapolating from adults’ experiences.

“It brings home the importance of understanding young people in the context of their development trajectory,” she said.

More than 80 articles have been published based on the data, which was released between 2012 and 2014. The OJJDP bulletins, written by researchers, give an overview of what has been discovered based on the study.

In the report, the researchers highlighted policy implications including:

  • Serious adolescent offenders are most likely to change their perceptions of risk if they are arrested before they have a “sizeable reservoir of offenses.”
  • The offenders’ changes in perception of risk are greatest for crimes connected to their arrest. Policies that focus on certain offenses may be “marginally more effective” at reducing that crime than broad crime reduction efforts.
  • If an offender is uncertain about the level of risk, that perception may be used to enhance deterrence. The police, for example, could increase the randomness of surveillance and patrol.

The last of those findings is controversial, said the researchers, because it would “require police agencies to substantially rethink how they deploy their scarce resources.”

The researchers also said there is much to learn about offenders beyond how they respond to the threat of sanctions.

“The challenge ahead in deterrence research on serious adolescent offenders is to learn more about offenders’ decisionmaking so that policies can more efficiently and effectively deter these offenders from crime,” the report said.

Brent Orrell, a vice president at ICF International who studies family and economic stability, said he would be interested to see future research that looks at how adverse childhood experiences influence perceptions of crime and punishment.

“We can tune in to what we’re learning from the neuroscience work on how trauma shapes the ability to perceive and manage risk,” he said.

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Advocates, Analysts See Pivotal Moment in Push for Reforms

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

President Obama’s sweeping speech on criminal justice reform last month included a familiar refrain for juvenile justice reformers: “Kids are different.”

“Don't just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens,” he told the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia.

The president’s speech was one marker in a recent string of political pronouncements, legislative rumblings and on-the-ground policy developments that have reformers hoping this is a moment for criminal justice reform — one that will include juvenile justice.

It’s early to say exactly how the momentum will play out for young people and their families who come into contact with the criminal justice system. But there are guideposts for whether and how that momentum is building, say advocates and analysts.

“It definitely feels like a pivotal moment. The question is what happens next,” said Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that works to reduce incarceration.

In recent months, some states have taken action against the use of shackles and solitary confinement for juveniles. Reports on the success of “close to home” programs that try to keep juveniles connected to their families and communities while they are incarcerated were released, and high-profile raise the age campaigns were waged.

[Related: Juvenile Solitary Confinement: Modern-Day ‘Torture’ in the US]

Experts say lawmakers, prosecutors and judges are more receptive than ever before to science that shows children’s and teenagers’ brains are still developing, so they need to be treated differently in the justice system.

More broadly, there is bipartisan sentiment that the United States has an unsustainable and unproductive level of mass incarceration. Several major reform bills focused on the adult system have been introduced in Congress this year.

Derek Cohen, deputy director of the conservative group Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said it is important to look at each state individually because each has a unique starting point.

But he’s hard-pressed to think of places where change isn’t at least under discussion.

“I think that the prevailing winds have changed, that the fundamental landscape has changed,” he said.

[module type="aside" align="right"]

Learn more about evidence-based practices at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubRead more about reform trends in the evidence-based practices section of the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Cohen expects juvenile justice reforms, which he said typically have had more support than adult reforms, not to get tossed out even as lawmakers focus on the criminal justice system broadly.

One federal indicator for juvenile justice reforms will be the ongoing reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which sets federal standards and supports for juvenile justice programs in state and local jurisdictions.

A bill to reauthorize the law, which was last updated in 2002, sailed through a Senate committee in July with bipartisan support and is headed to the Senate floor. What happens there and in the House will be telling about the strength of that bipartisan agreement, reformers say.

Schindler said the amount of funding dedicated to JJDPA will also be a key clue about how juveniles will fare in the coming years, as will the kinds of programs state and local governments decide to invest in. He wants to see programs that emphasize healthy communities with opportunities for adolescents to learn and mature in safe ways.

“Those are the types of things we know from the research make kids less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” he said.

Schindler said alongside signs of progress is evidence reforms are still needed, such as the increasing rates of racial disparities in the juvenile system even as the number of incarcerated juveniles has come down.

“We are not anywhere close to a fair system, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.

Schindler said he also will be watching to see whether the broad discussions of criminal justice reform look beyond nonviolent offenders to how violent offenders are treated within the system.

In addition, he’s interested in whether the consensus around the science that says kids are different will also spur reforms for young adults older than 18.

“People are starting to ask the right question, which is that if 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds are more like 15-year-olds than 40-year-olds, why are we treating them like 40-year-olds?” he said.

Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization in Illinois, said the criminal justice reform movement does seem to be at a unique moment.

But she also thinks the reform push could fall short of its potential if it fails to consider what’s happening in the United States in the context of international human rights.

“The problem really is that our whole notion of what is proportionate for punishment has not kept pace with the rest of the world,” she said.

Reforms should begin with the question of what is most humane, whether offenders are juveniles or adults, nonviolent or violent, Clarke said.

“Without that frame, the inroads that we’re able to make are going to be really narrow,” she said.

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Youth Advocates Using Documentary to Sway Public Opinion on JLWOP

WASHINGTON — Last year, documentary audiences first met Kenneth Young, a man sentenced to life in prison in Florida for crimes he committed as a young teenager.

A year later, advocates still are spreading his story, hoping it will help end sentences of juvenile life without parole in communities across the country.

The engagement campaign around the film, “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” is a way to change culture, not just laws, supporters said at a screening of the film on Monday.

The film follows the legal fight of Young, who was sentenced to four consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole for his role in a series of armed robberies when he was 14 and 15 years old.

The filmmakers have teamed with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth to host dozens of community screenings and panel discussions that explore the question of juvenile life without parole, using Young’s story as a jumping-off point.

Young’s lawyer, Paolo Annino, supervising attorney at the Public Interest Law Center in Tallahassee, Fla., said at the panel discussion that he agreed to participate in the documentary because of the way law can follow culture.

In the wake of Supreme Court decisions that have come down against juvenile life without parole sentences, states’ reactions have been mixed, Annino said. Some have moved to abolish the practice, while others have looked for ways to sidestep the rulings.

The mixed reaction is why public attitudes should matter to advocates, because they can help drive legislative changes, Annino said.

“As a society we need to start thinking children are different, and we need to treat them differently for the purposes of sentencing,” he said.

The film’s director, Nadine Pequeneza, said she always envisioned the documentary would be used as a tool for social change. She wants viewers to consider how children are different than adults, the early traumas that many young people in the criminal justice system have faced, and racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing.

[Related: Arkansas Supreme Court Rules Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive]

In addition to hosting the screenings, the filmmakers are developing a curriculum for teachers who want to show the documentary in their classrooms. They also plan to start a fund to support Young because so many viewers have asked how they can help him.

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said the film is an important educational tool alongside efforts to push for legislative changes. The organization lobbies to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The question that our country is faced with — and that the story of Kenneth amplifies — is how do we as a society want to hold these people accountable?” she said in an interview.

Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life without parole sentences for people who were juveniles at the time of the crime are unconstitutional, nine states have abolished juvenile life without parole and three have abolished the practice for some offenses.

The changes come at a time when policymakers and judges are increasingly open to the idea that juvenile offenders should be treated differently because they are still developing and need rehabilitation, Lavy said.

But advocates still have much to do, including making their case to the public, she added.

“I think it’s important to recognize this is a long-term effort, and while there’s momentum, there’s an important role for the film and other efforts,” she said.

More information about the film and engagement campaign is available at

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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves JJDPA Update

Sen. Chuck Grassley
Sen. Chuck Grassley at the Senate committee meeting today.

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan bill that aims to strengthen protections for youth who enter the criminal justice system cleared a key congressional committee today.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved by voice vote the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2015 (S 1169). The law, which is more than 40 years old, sets federal standards and supports for juvenile justice programs in state and local jurisdictions.

The legislation would update the law, adding new policies its supporters say reflect a growing body of knowledge about best practices in juvenile justice. It was last reauthorized in 2002 and lapsed in 2007.

“I am pleased that we have revisited the authorizing statute for some vitally important juvenile justice programs — a statute that is long overdue for an update, to reflect the latest scientific research on what works for at-risk adolescents,” said Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the vote.

[Related: Grassley, Whitehouse Introduce Measure to Reauthorize Juvenile Justice Act]

The legislation would phase out an exception that allows children who commit status offenses to be detained. Status offenses include truancy, running away from home and curfew violations — actions that would never land an adult in jail.

The legislation also would require that juveniles be separated from adults in the criminal justice system during the pretrial period.

States would be required to set measurable ways to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and publicly report the results.

Grassley and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced the five-year reauthorization in April.

Since then, lawmakers have added provisions that would make federal funding for evidence-based programs a higher priority, phase out the shackling of girls during childbirth and add grant accountability reforms. The committee approved a substitute amendment that reflects those changes.

Whitehouse said he hopes the reauthorization will continue to move in a smooth, bipartisan manner and stressed the importance of the policy changes it includes.

“It is not a reauthorization that is not controversial because it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “There are some very consequential changes here.”

The legislation also would:

  • require the Justice Department to offer training and technical assistance to states on best practice and protocols;
  • strengthen provisions to help children with mental health and substance abuse issues; and
  • call for states to consider alternatives to detention for nonviolent youth who enter the criminal justice system.

The law has the support of a wide variety of organizations, including youth advocates, victim support groups and conservative criminal justice organizations.

Marie Williams, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said the reauthorization would ensure the most current developments in the field are incorporated in the law. But it’s also an opportunity to remember that the core requirements of the law weren’t always common practice and need to be protected, she said.

“Reauthorizing the law isn’t just about reviewing and refreshing,” she said. “It’s about reminding people that the things we do right can slip.”

Williams said she’s optimistic the legislation’s movement in the Senate will encourage action in the House. A standalone reauthorization of JJDPA has yet to be introduced there.

Marc A. Levin, policy director at Right on Crime, a conservative group, said the legislation has the potential to be better for children, families and taxpayers by focusing on what works best to help children and reduce recidivism.

“This is a great opportunity to align federal policies with these advancements in the field,” he said.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., were co-sponsors.

The legislation next moves to the full Senate.

More JJDPA-related stories:

House Bill Would Reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

Williams: Why the JJDPA Still Matters

Will This Be the Year JJDPA Is Reauthorized?

House Proposal Would Eliminate Key JJDPA Funding